by Chris B
In “The Patron Theory of Politics”[i] a new model of political theory was presented which rejected the possibility of spontaneous order. The picture which emerged from this analysis was one in which anti-authority sentiment and protest is revealed as being encouraged and directed by centralising and self-effacing power centers against their competitors. In this paper, we will revisit this model and review two recent books that shed light on historical examples of this process which have significant ramifications for current political events. The two books in question are William T Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict and Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. Both books deal with the birth of new cultural developments (Protestantism and Political Islam) and both make links independently that correspond to the patron theory of politics.
Re-imagining the beginnings of Protestantism; Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence
In Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, Cavanaugh presents a thesis which is radically at odds with received wisdom concerning the origin of the secular state. Citing the examples of Baruch Spinoza,Thomas Hobbes and John Locke who presented religious division[ii] as the cause of the conflicts of the period, he notes that this narrative provided:
the backdrop for much of the Enlightenment’s critique of religion. There developed a grand narrative in Enlightenment historiography—typified by Edward Gibbon and Voltaire—that saw the wars of religion as the last gasp of medieval barbarism and fanaticism before the darkness was dispelled.[iii]
More modern liberal thinkers have subsequently traced the birth of liberalism to the so-called religious conflicts of this period, with Cavanaugh citing Quintin Skinner, Jeffrey Stout, Judith Shklar and John Rawls as exemplifying this narrative.[iv] This narrative takes on a pressing importance given the usage of it in justifying numerous policies and legal decisions of the modern state. Indeed, in a section dealing with the usages of the myth of religious difference and religious violence being the cause of societal conflict, he makes the claim that:
The myth of religious violence is simply part of the general conceptual apparatus of Western society. It is one of the ways that the legitimacy of liberal social orders is continually reinforced, from official government actions to the common assumptions of the citizen on the street. [v]
Cavanaugh’s interpretation of political conflicts then takes this assumption of religious differences, and religion as such as the cause, and turns it on its head. In so doing, Cavanaugh also targets the very category of religion itself and uncovers the institutional creation of the modern understanding of this concept.
In this new interpretation of conflicts center stage is given to the power centers in play at the time in question. As Cavanaugh takes pains to point out, the institutional changes which were supposed to have been ushered in as a result of the religious conflicts actually presaged them. To bolster his argument he provides ample examples of conflict occurring between states with the same denominations, as well as collaboration between differing denominations. The most trenchant observation is provided by the example of Martin Luther:
As Richard Dunn points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527, and when the papacy belatedly sponsored a reform program, both the Habsburgs and the Valois refused to endorse much of it, rejecting especially those Trentine decrees which encroached on their sovereign authority.” The wars of the 1520s were part of the ongoing struggle between the pope and the emperor for control over Italy and over the church in German territories. [vi]
Cavanaugh even manages to find a wonderful quote from Pope Julius III complaining of Henry II of France’s actions, “in the end, you are more than Pope in your kingdoms. . . . I know no reason why you should wish to become schismatic.” [vii]
On this, we can then see clearly the role of Jouvenel’s mechanism of power employing dissenting sects in the process of power expansion. The employment of schismatic sects and the promotion of what Jouvenel called “the most ignorant of the preachers”[viii] becomes an obvious means of extending the power of the power centers in question. This observation is supported by the thesis presented by Cavanaugh that the Reformation failed in those states that were advanced in the State’s absorption of ecclesiastical power:
It is unarguably the case that the reinforcement of ecclesiastical difference in early modern Europe was largely a project of state-building elites. As G. R. Elton bluntly puts it, “The Reformation maintained itself wherever the lay power (prince or magistrates) favoured it; it could not survive wherever the authorities decided to suppress it.” [ix]
Where the Reformation succeeded was in England, Scandinavia, and many German principalities, where breaking with the Catholic Church meant that the church could be used to augment the power of the civil authorities. To cite one example, King Gustav Vasa welcomed the Reformation to Sweden in 1524 by transferring the receipt of tithes from the church to the Crown. Three years later, he appropriated the entire property of the church. As William Maltby notes, accepting Lutheranism both gave princes an ideological basis for resisting the centralizing efforts of the emperor and gave them the chance to extract considerable wealth from confiscated church properties. [x]
To make matters worse, it appears as if not only were the conflicts derived from governmental structural conflict, but the very definition of “religion” was as well. The word and the concept it covers really does have a history, and it is connected to the structural conflicts of the early modern period.
In the narrative presented by Cavanaugh, and supported with significant evidence, religion as modern people understand it arose in the 15th century with Nicholas of Cusa’s usage of religio to “indicate the various ways in which God is worshipped.” [xi] This stands in contrast to the earlier usage of the word in which:
religio was primarily used to differentiate clergy who were members of orders from diocesan clergy. Secondarily, religio named one relatively minor virtue in a complex of other practices that assumed the particular context of the Christian church and the Christian social order. [xii]
This was followed by Marsilio Ficino who presented the concept of religio as meaning “something like piety,”[xiii] which differs from the previous concept of the word because “it is both interiorized and universalized. It is located as a natural, innate impulse of the human heart, indeed the fundamental human characteristic common to all.[xiv]”
This identification of religion as an internal belief separate from practice (which in effect becomes superfluous) then continues to gather pace with the rise of Calvinism and Protestantism in general, intellectual systems which we may recall from Jouvenel were precisely those favoured by Power. Why would this be? The example of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury is provided by Cavanaugh, and it amply demonstrates the particular context of a thinker advocating such a concept of religion:
It is important to note that Herbert’s interiorization and universalization of religion go hand in hand with his support of state control over the church. This may seem like a contradiction, but Herbert has no intention of privatizing worship. Herbert’s scheme for toleration is part of a larger shift toward the absorption of ecclesiastical power by the rising state in the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, served the English Crown as ambassador to France and wrote a history of King Henry VIII and a short paper in English, “On the King’s supremacy in the Church.” In the latter document, in looking over the biblical and historical record, he finds that “noe Change of Religion, during the Reigne of their Kings did follow, which was not procured by their immediate power,” an echo of the policy of cuius regio, eius religio. He also argues that “it is unsafe to diuide the people, betwixt temporall, and spirituall obedience, or suspend them, betwixt the Terrours of a secular death, and Eternall punishments.” The distinction between religion and the secular in these two passages is not yet a distinction between private and public.” The private origin of religion in the individual’s intuition of the common notions, however, allows for the state to enforce order by reducing religion to five relatively innocuous propositions and an “austere” public worship stripped of most of its formative power.[xv]
By the time we get to Locke and the clearly modern consideration of religion, we find:
For Locke, as for Herbert, religion is primarily a state of mind: “All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind.” For this reason, Locke denies to the magistrate any power to enforce religion, because the magistrate cannot penetrate the inner reaches of the personal conscience where true religion resides. Locke draws a distinction between the “outward force” used by the civil magistrate and the “inward persuasion” of religion, and he argues that “such is the nature of the understanding that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force. [xvi]
This conception of religion which appears to be a philosophical artifact of political conflict then facilitated a removal of the ecclesiastical from the modern nation state. Locke is clearly outlining exactly where institutions defined as religious have authority, and exactly where those institutions defined as secular have authority. That this accorded exactly with the monarch’s, and then parliament’s, interest in obtaining sovereignty is no coincidence:
When the opposition of religious clergy to secular clergy was transferred to the new conception of religion in the early modern era, however, the secular retained its oppositional character and became that which is not religious in the modern sense. The new religious-secular dichotomy fit into the modern state’s individualist anthropology, as typified by Locke. As Ezra Kopelowitz remarks:
The distinction between the “religious” and the “secular” occurs in societies in which the individual, rather than [the] group is the primary component of social organization. The rise of the individual as the basis of social organization corresponds with the expansion of the centralized modern state, with its strong legal-rational bureaucracy that treats individuals and not groups as the primary source of social rights. Before the rise of the centralized state . . . “religion” was not a distinct social category that a person could choose or reject. You were born into a group, of which ceremony and symbols rooted in doctrine (religious content) were an integral part of public life.
Although Kopelowitz persists in spying a “religious content” underlying medieval forms, his overall point is accurate: the religious-secular binary is a new creation that accompanies the creation of the modern state.[xvii]
There is much more to be said of Cavanaugh’s excellent scholarship, but that can wait for another time. For the sake of this essay, we will need to move onto another area in a similar Jouvenelian dynamic is obvious, and where clear parallels of Cavanaugh’s claims are present.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the role of power conflict: Ghost Wars by Steve Coll.
It has become commonplace to compare the modern developments in Islam and the current turmoil of the Islamic world to the Reformation. Such comparisons correctly note two similar symptoms of the same problem, but drastically mistake the underlying cause. Steve Coll’s work on the history of US involvement in Islamic conflict and terrorism in Afghanistan and beyond takes us behind the scenes and presents us with a narrative which has already been laid out for us by Jouvenel, and by examples provided by Cavanaugh. It is actually of quite considerable credit to Coll that he not only follows the thread of United States (US), Pakistani, and Saudi Arabian (SA) institutional involvement in the Afghan conflict with extreme detail, but he also manages with great foresight to provide historical parallels to the rise of the House of Saud through its partnership with Wahhabism in the 19th century. Much like with the role of Protestantism in the formation of European states and progressivism/ liberalism since, Islam in the form of Wahhabism required the destruction of all other belief systems and simultaneously provided a system of equality before the House of Saud, the centralising power. Saudi Arabia, according to Coll, therefore became the first modern nation state built on Jihad.[xviii] Following this same logic, Pakistan under the guidance of General Zia is presented as utilising Wahabbi Islamic and Deobandi Islamic schools of thought in the form of madrassas, citing startling statistics, Coll points out that “In 1971 there had been only nine hundred madrassas in all of Pakistan. By the summer of 1988 there were about eight thousand official religious schools and an estimated twenty-five thousand unregistered ones.”[xix] These schools though, were not spontaneous or organic as understood in liberal theory, but were supported by General Zia, and by a cross network of funds from the Saudi General Intelligence Department (GID) and charities funded by wealthy Saudi patrons in line with formal Saudi funding. As Coll claims:
Zia strongly encouraged personal religious piety within the Pakistan army’s officer corps, a major change from the past. He encouraged the financing and construction of hundreds of Madrassas or religious school, along the Afghan frontier.[xx]
In short, the entire network was sponsored into existence at the instigation of power actors. The question to then answer is why would these centers of power provide the financial and logistical backbone to political Islam, and the answer is because it served their goals.
From the angle of president Zia, Coll makes it clear that the incentives from his position were numerous and all in favour of encouraging Jihad and Salafi style Islam. Pakistan for a start is a country comprised of a number of ethnic groups, and Pashtun nationalism in particular appears to have been a concern, hence Coll reports the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad Howard Hart being of the opinion that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) favoured Muslim Brotherhood linked groups in Afghanistan because “it weakened groups likely to stir up Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan.”[xxi] Coll notes that the ISI effectively eliminated all the secular, leftist, and royalist parties competing with their favoured groups. National unification was a significant influence on Zia’s calculations as Coll discusses with regard to Zia’s strengthening of Jamaat-e-Islami.[xxii] Clearly another example of a centralising power promoting an intellectual system premised on equality/ uniformity.
This policy of favouring Islamic groups to act as competitors for secular movements threatening to certain power centers would be repeated many times in the Middle East. One clear example of this is provided by Israel’s support of Hamas as a means to weaken the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO.) The details of the policy are revealed in a Wall Street Journal article dated January 24, 2009 in which a former government official is quoted as admitting to the Israeli policy of supporting and declaring that “”When I look back at the chain of events I think we made a mistake.”[xxiii]
The other major impetus for Zia, and one which he shared with the US and Saudi Arabia, was using local unrest in Afghanistan and conflict between Islamic groups and Marxist groups as a means to cause conflict for the USSR and its Marxist Afghan client state. It was of importance to Pakistan to have a friendly government in power or risk being sandwiched between a hostile India and Afghanistan. In such a situation, finding those opposed to the Marxist government in Afghanistan was obviously a priority. Just such opposition would be found in Islamic groups which along with the Marxist ideology of the government are noted as “imported ideologies” by Coll. This imported Islamic ideology came by the route of Al-Azhar University. Al-Azhar University itself appears to have been the recipient of sustained Saudi attention in the form of significant financial largess, with Coll providing the example of King Faisal supplying a grant of $100,000,000 to the rector.[xxiv] The Jamestown Foundation in volume 1 issue 7 of the Terrorism Monitor also provides a number of examples this Saudi influence took, such as the following:
In 1981 an Azhari professor who had often railed at the obscurantism of the Wahhabi creed received the US$200,000 King-Faisal Prize for “services rendered to Islam” and another US$850,000 from the King-Fahd-Prize. He thereupon published a pro-Wahhabi tome entitled The Saudis and the Islamic Solution.[xxv]
Saudi Influence in the conflict appears to have resulted from the strategic geopolitical importance of Afghanistan and the potential threat posed by a USSR with a strong foothold there, a concern shared identically with the USA and Pakistan. This prompted a joint effort by both the USA and the Saudis to fund the Afghan conflict via the proxy of Pakistan’s ISI, which itself was acting covertly. The Saudis agreed to match US funding dollar for dollar. It is simply the case that without these funds, prolonged conflict in Afghanistan and successful resistance to Soviet intervention would have been inconceivable. The US and Saudi money purchased supplies, alliances, and weapons primarily from China. This was further exacerbated by both Saudi and American efforts to fund groups in Afghanistan independent of the ISI who favoured a coalition run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Coll reports that at one point the Saudis had direct influence in the war through funding Abdurrab Rasul Sayyef’s rebel party, while Sheikh Abdul bin Bazhad, head of the Kingdoms’s official religious establishment had influence through funding Jamil al Rahman’s group[xxvi], with the CIA having an independent footing through funding Abdul Haq, and later Ahmed Massoud.[xxvii] [xxviii]
This funding glut was taken to incredible levels following the initial success of the Afghan War, with US funding reaching $470,000,000 in 1986, and $630,000,000 in 1987. Each figure, again, matched by Saudi’s GID, and then augmented by donations from non-formal Saudi channels.[xxix] The numbers are simply astounding and represent the very lifeblood of political Islam.
So we can see quite clearly that the success and development of Salafi Islam as with Protestantism cannot be explained as a dialectical development in accordance with reason, but instead as the symptom of sustained and brutal geopolitical conflict to which it lent significant assistance. US assistance in the process is especially egregious given the subsequent consequences of this development. Attempts at expanding the conflict into Central Asia were apparently authorised by CIA head William Casey, with “Afghan rebels carrying CIA-printed Holy Korans in the Uzbek language,”[xxx] entering Uzbekistan using CIA provided weaponry. It appears to have been very clear US policy to encourage the spread of Islam against Soviet governance. That these adherents of strict Islam would have trouble differentiating modern western states from Soviet states, and then direct their attention to the US appears to have not been deeply considered by western analysts, which has more to say about western intellectual robustness then it does about the Muslims in question. An unintentional insight into this is provided by Coll himself as he lists complaints against the Soviet Afghan government, “They…banned dowries for brides, legislated freedom of choice within marriages, and mandated universal education in Marxist dogma.”[xxxi] One has to assume that with the inclusion of “Marxist dogma” Coll perceives some kind of significant difference to western mandated education where students are educated in liberal concepts which would I assume, not count as dogma.
Application of the dynamics presented in the two works- Syria and the Arab Spring
It is clear that the rise of Salafi Islam in the 20th century is not in any way some form of natural process, it was not spontaneous at all, but is eminently explainable in relation to institutional conflict with Afghanistan proving to be the crucible within which it fully flowered. The continual flourishing of political Islam points towards a continual usage of this process even now. One only has to look toward the current issues in Syria to see the similar dynamic of Afghanistan in play. Political Islam is, like all cultural emanations, built like a body upon a skeleton of institutions, which facilitate the movement of money, which is its life blood.
Applying the model to the events in Syria, we will have to consider the various rebellious factions as being animated by funding from external actors. It doesn’t take long to note that the actors in question consist of the US, the United Kingdom (UK), numerous European nations, Israel and the Middle East states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Other factions are seemingly provided support from Iran, Russia, and China.
Just such a position is actually expressed in a declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document.[xxxii] The document in question reveals this in the following pertinent section:
B, The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, ad AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.
C, The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition, while Russia, China and Iran support the regime. (sic)
The Syrian conflict mirrors the Afghan conflict to such a degree that we even appear to have the same dynamic of multiple revenue streams operating concurrently from the Gulf States and the West. In a speech addressed to Goldman Sachs, then Secretary Clinton made the following remarks in relation to the US weapons transfers to Syria:
“Some of us thought, perhaps, we could, with a more robust, covert action trying to vet, identify, train and arm cadres of rebels that would at least have the firepower to be able to protect themselves against both Assad and the Al-Qaeda-related jihadist groups that have, unfortunately, been attracted to Syria,” she noted. “That’s been complicated by the fact that the Saudis and others are shipping large amounts of weapons—and pretty indiscriminately—not at all targeted toward the people that we think would be the more moderate, least likely, to cause problems in the future, but this is another one of those very tough analytical problems.[xxxiii]
One can only wonder if the US dollar for dollar agreement has been replicated between the GID and US security institutions.
If one were to continue applying the Afghan model to the Syrian conflict, one might also take note of the actions of US security services in transferring captured Iraqi ordinance to the Afghan battle field following the First Iraq War. Coll writes:
Saddam Hussein’s army abandoned scores of Soviet-made tanks and artillery pieces in Kuwait and southern Iraq, The discarded weaponry offered the potential for a classic covert action play: The CIA would secretly use spoils captured from one of America’s enemies to attack another enemy[xxxiv]
In addition, “Peter Tomsen and others at the State Department agreed to support transfers of Iraqi weapons.”[xxxv]
This would allow us to predict that following the Libyan conflict and the overthrow of Gadafhi, weaponry from the Libyan army would find its way to western allies in Syria with the connivance of the State Department. This is indeed exactly what happened according to a Times article by Christina Lamb from December 2012.[xxxvi] What should be surprising about this is that it has been greeted with surprise. The organisational structure of the US hasn’t changed, and recourse to such convoluted schemes will be expected to continue until it does change.
Another striking parallel is outlined in an article in the New Eastern Outlook[xxxvii] on the sudden appearance of a fleet of Toyota pickup trucks in the hands of ISIS. The article rather dryly takes apart the charade of the US Treasury Department’s investigation of Toyota over the issue when it is clear from reports released by the US State Department and UK sources that they provided them to the Free Syrian Army (FSA.) I have no doubt that a review of orders will also show purchases from the Saudis and Qatar as well. The cover of “good” freedom fighters having been given the cars is fairly childish, but in reality the general public does not need a more sophisticated one. For a political theorist, however, it should not block a serious analysis of events. Returning back to Coll’s book, reference is made on numerous occasions to the CIA and local Afghan factions favouring Toyota pickup trucks. One reference in relation to the Jalalabad battle of 1989 is particularly illuminating; as Coll writes “The CIA purchased several hundred trucks in Japan that winter, shipped them to Karachi and rolled them up to Peshwar to support the Jalalabad assault.”[xxxviii] These trucks being “favoured by the CIA and its Afghan clients during the anti-Soviet jihad”[xxxix] So it would appear this arrangement, and the favouring of these trucks, has a long standing basis with elements in the security services of the West.
The revelation of western actors supporting political Islam as a means of disruption provides insight into the seeming incompetence of security agencies surrounding the free movement of so called Islamic extremists in the west. An article in The Russian Times ““British Collusion with Sectarian Violence: Part One”[xl] covers a number of incidences in which trials against active recruiters, and individuals attempting to engage in Islamic terrorism, in multiple countries in Europe collapsed due to security service involvement. Supplying one particular eye opening source in the form of an interview with Abu Muntasir we learn that security services allowed him free reign:
Muntasir, who is seen sobbing in the film as he recounts the horrors of his own days on battlefields in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Burma, is described as one of the “founding fathers of western jihad” and admitted that he worked to “create the link and clear the paths. I came back [from war] and opened the door and the trickle turned to a flood. I inspired and recruited, I raised funds and bought weapons, not just a one-off but for 15 to 20 years. Why I have never been arrested I don’t know.”[xli]
We do not have to be as confused as Muntasir at all. Islamic violence is in actuality a valuable resource to unsecure power.
If this clear repetition of the Afghan conflict holds (which it will) then we can predict a number of outcomes for Syria, firstly, once major US actors lose strategic interest due to victory or a change in goals, then Syria will be left without a clear plan of action. Things will merely drift on whatever course they end up on. Secondly, any form of order will not return if Assad and the institutions that make up the Syrian government are destroyed as long as the US remains in its current structural guise. Just as Afghanistan and now Libya went from having functioning governance to total dysfunction, Syria will do the same. Maybe every now and then some segment of the US NGO complex will develop a transient pointless interest, only to lose it again. Any attempt to re-establish governance on any sane footing will necessarily be anathema to US democratic sensibilities and interest will only return if geopolitical necessity brings major US actor’s attentions back to the area at which point more conflict will occur. Afghanistan’s descent into barbarism is a fool proof guide.
Egypt and Tunisia – the Facebook revolutions
Widening our scope to look at the wave of protests which sparked the Arab Spring and not just Syria, we are faced with the by now familiar spectacle of top down grass roots movements financed by western NGOs in line with the geopolitical aspirations of the American governing elite. We have been told that the triggers for spontaneous uprisings and attacks on the regimes in North Africa and the Middle East were based on economic inequality, and in particular, anger over corruption, but such claims beggar belief. The claims fail to answer elementary questions such as why would all of these countries suddenly be upset over corruption which is seemingly endemic to such societies? Why in the western world do we not engage in rampages and regime change at the sight of the President of the U.S living in the luxury of the White House? Why does the U.K. not combust into flames at the revelation of Tony Blair’s riches? There is significant and chronic inequality throughout the liberal world, yet they remain relatively stable. Further questions we may ask include why had numerous previous demonstrations not developed into widespread regime change? And why this area of the world in particular, and at this time in particular? As always with such narratives, the level of immaturity is a direct consequence of the need for it to be widely disseminated. A look at those directly involved in organising and leading the protests however will lead us to understand the underlying institutions and funding which created and maintained this organised social unrest.
Our first clue as to what happened with the Arab Spring is provided by an article in the New York Times titled U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings. The story presented by the author is predictable:
WASHINGTON — Even as the United States poured billions of dollars into foreign military programs and anti-terrorism campaigns, a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states.
The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by the Pentagon. But as American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.[xlii]
This pattern would indicate that US officials and power centers engaged in the organisation, training and funding of proxy actors agitating for equality, liberty etc. This prediction is confirmed from the wealth of cable leaks by Wikileaks. Looking at these cable leaks, we can indeed see a very clear pattern emerging of the leaders of these uprisings planning and receiving training in organisations in the U.S. and discussing their plans with US officials in both Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and formal governing institutions. Looking at the case of Egypt first, we can see first-hand a report on the activities of an Egyptian activist in the U.S. discussing plans for a push for regime change before the Arab Spring. The activist in question even advises a full three years before the event that opposition parties in Egypt were seeking to implement regime change:
xxxxxxxxxxxx claimed that several opposition forces — including the Wafd, Nasserite, Karama and Tagammu parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya, and Revolutionary Socialist movements — have agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections (ref C). According to xxxxxxxxxxxx, the opposition is interested in receiving support from the army and the police for a transitional government prior to the 2011 elections.[xliii]
It would appear that the activist in question is an Ahmed Salah mentioned in a further Wikileaks cable.[xliv] I presume it is him due to the repeated references to working as a journalist fixer, but I am unable to confirm this. This further Wikileaks cable is interesting in showing clear support from U.S. officials for an actor openly seeking the overthrow of the Egyptian government as well as the involvement/collusion of Facebook. The relevant section is below:
5. (C) Saleh expressed interest in attending the December 3-5 “Alliance for Youth Movements Summit” in New York, saying that he would welcome the opportunity to meet other activists and discuss with Facebook how the company could facilitate his movement’s activities by allowing them to delete users who are trying to infiltrate their on-line discussions. He stressed his view that solely attending the conference is not worth the risk of being sent back to jail, so he is interested in holding a series of meetings in the U.S. with “influential U.S. officials, members of the Obama transition team, members of Congress and think tanks” to lobby on behalf of democracy and human rights in Egypt. Saleh requested Department assistance in facilitating such meetings. Citing the film “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Saleh opined that even one member of Congress can make a significant difference.
6.(C) He laid out his movement’s publicly expressed vision for a democratic Egypt, involving a three-year transitional government appointed by the judiciary followed by free and fair elections for parliament, an empowered prime minister, a weakened presidency and a new constitution. He noted that he had been in contact with unnamed members of Freedom House to discuss scheduling U.S. meetings. Saleh described a recent conversation in Cairo with an unnamed Amcit who advised him on potential Washington meetings and is working to include him in an early December dinner in New York with Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Saleh said he hoped to lobby influential Washington officials in December and then again in 2009.[xlv]
Ahmed Salah is quite open about having been working towards, and organising, protests, as shown by articles such as one jointly authored by him in The Huffington Post where he wrote:
As an activist, I spent nearly a decade working both independently and as part of a number of popular movements to overthrow Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since 1981. I focused on nonviolent protest and abstained from politics.[xlvi]
Quite how an individual who sought constitutional change and lobbied American institutions while being in constant contact with the State Department can claim to have “abstained from politics” is puzzling, but is part and parcel of the thinking of activists. Salah also confirms that the protest date was organised beforehand, and that he:
…worked nonstop to spread the word, to share the strategy I believed in, and to train new protesters. Those of us who had experience gathering signatures — most particularly my fiancée, Mahitab — set up meeting after meeting with anyone who had ever attended a protest or expressed interest in it.[xlvii]
Of course, it was not merely Salah involved in the organisation, but many others linked through numerous institutions organised and funded by US sources, as detailed in further New York Times articles titled Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in Revolution[xlviii] and A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History.[xlix] The constant in both articles is the brazen attempt to frame the social unrest in deterministic terms, as if underlying economics explain events, as well as in spontaneous terms in which people just organised as if by telepathy or a general will, whilst outlining in admirable detail the clear structural necessity of US institutions. The clear incompatibility between these concepts always goes unnoticed. The articles outline a narrative in which the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict ran workshops to train demonstrators in both Tunisa and Egypt on how to “undermine police states,” provided organisational advice, fostered connections, provided funds etc. The organised nature of the protests is highlighted by the wonderfully unreflective quote by one Mr. Ghonim that he had ‘never seen a revolution that was preannounced before,’”[l]
This US funded and organised social unrest was then met with official US calls for the regime targeted to relinquish power to actors which the US officials had groomed for their replacement. Usually this take the form of calls for reform, which means relinquish power to these replacements in a transitional way, or it becomes simply abdication, which means relinquish power immediately. Either way, the game is relinquishing power to actors that the dominant US power centers wish for power to be transferred to, and over whom they have control.
Before we progress to the Tunisian example specifically, it would be worthwhile clarifying the role of US involvement. One thing which is clear from the Afghan example is that the actions of various US institutions is fragmented, often contradictory, confused and subject to often strange imperatives. The example of the House of Saud likewise provides significant confusion. Despite the disconnected and convoluted array of actors originating in the US, the overall pattern of behaviour follows a certain path as outlined repeatedly in this paper. This political ecosystem works inevitably towards ever greater equality in various flavors. So whilst I may have at times referred to US involvement, it must not be taken as an insinuation of a unified and logically thought-out grand scheme or strategy, rather it is merely the actions of whatever institution represents the US at the times, and on that issue. What we see is the unsecure nature of the power system selects key behaviours and provides incentives for these same behaviours. As such, we can observe actors at one part of this eco-system acting with the pure motivation of equality, whilst in other areas, a more cynical attitude appears. All however, swim towards “progress.”
Turning our attention now to Tunisian events in particular, we can approach the claim that the cause of the unrest was the self-immolation of a trader in Sidi Bouzid. What is noteworthy is that there had been previous examples of this, as well as many protests that did not lead to nationwide activism. The claim simply doesn’t hold water; instead we can apply the patron theory model and see what is revealed. Firstly, we can look for an actor promoting and organising the protests. This would appear to have been the Sidi Bouzid branch of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) as revealed by an Al Jazeera article titled How Tunisia’s Revolution Began:
The protests that erupted in Sidi Bouzid were indeed spontaneous, yet they were marked by a level of organisation and sophistication that appears grounded in the sheer determination of those who participated in them.
The Sidi Bouzid branch of the UGTT was engaged in the uprising from day one.
While the national leadership of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is generally viewed as lacking political independence from the ruling class, its regional representatives have a reputation for gutsy engagement.
“The major driving force behind these protesters is the Sidi Bouzid union, which is very strong,” said Affi Fethi, who teaches physics at a local high school.
For Fethi, it was when police killed protesters in nearby towns including Menzel Bouziane and Regueb that the regional protests became a nationwide uprising.[li]
This role played by UGTT is again not a random occurrence, but is in line with details outlined in a cable dated 22 February 2007. The cable in question summarises a call between the US ambassador and the UGTT Secretary General. The UGTT is described as “a natural ally on our Freedom Agenda goals.”[lii][liii] The cable then goes on to record the UGTT Secretary General claiming that:
…that the American people and government historically were respected internationally for supporting peace, democracy, human rights and freedom. Tunisians today still believe these are shared Tunisian-American values[liv]
So we see a warm relationship between the UGTT and the US, which includes increased co-operation and funding from the US as the cable concludes, “Post will follow up with Jerad to encourage greater cooperation, including through MEPI funding and PD programs.”[lv]
MEPI is seemingly a reference to the Middle East Partnership Initiative run by the State Department[lvi], with PD presumably being reference to participatory development programs generally. So we see very clearly at first-hand that the US spent considerable time increasing the resources and competency of opponents of the Tunisian government. This increasing support for activists is covered in Tunisia: From Stability to Revolution in the Maghreb where the author claims:
Particularly after the 11 September attacks, the US government became concerned that Ben Ali’s sclerotic kleptocracy could become a liability rather than an asset. The embassy in Tunis became critical of Ben Ali and increased contact with opposition organizations[lvii]
This is augmented by the claim that “opposition activists also believed that Ben Ali’s grip was slipping and that powerful international actors had lost some of their confidence in him,”[lviii] and that “A range of legal and illegal opposition parties and civil society organizations had become more active and begun to cooperate with one another.”[lix]
The narrative provided matches the cables. The US began providing funds, organising the opposition, and laying the groundwork for the overthrow of the government for some time beforehand. Further diplomatic cables from the US Tunisian embassy only support this narrative. One cable titled “What should we do?” is quite strange in that it lays out a picture of the Tunisian GOP being a benign regime with the foreign policy goal of simply “to get along with everyone”[lx] [sic] with the embassy’s anger apparently being directed at vague human rights complaints and anger at having their movements curtailed so that they had trouble:
to maintain contact with a wide swath of Tunisian society. GOT-controlled newspapers often attack Tunisian civil society activists who participate in Embassy activities, portraying them as traitors.[lxi]
The aim of this engagement being because the US has “an interest in fostering greater political openness and respect for human rights.”[lxii] The cable advises that the US should change its approach to one where:
The key element is more and frequent high-level private candor. We recommend being explicit with GOT leaders that we are changing our approach, while also making clear that we will continue to engage privately with opposition parties and civil society.[lxiii]
This increased communication being outlined in the following relevant section:
In addition to talking to the GOT, we need to engage directly with the Tunisian people, especially youth. The Embassy is already using Facebook as a communication tool. In addition, we have the Ambassador’s blog, a relatively new undertaking that is attracting attention. Over the past couple of years, the Embassy has substantially increased its outreach to Tunisian youth through concerts, film festivals, and other events. Our information resource center and America’s Corners are popular ways for Tunisians to access unfiltered news and information. We should continue and increase such programs.[lxiv]
The Tunisian government then seems to have been guilty of doing no more than asserting their sovereignty in relation to cultural developments within their territory, and in maintaining the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. US animosity to the regime seems bewildering in this light, given these are central roles played by governance such as with LGBT rights promotion.
The events of the Tunisian revolution and the clear involvement of US officials on numerous levels are also clearly demonstrated by further Wikileaks cables. One leak dated 23 January 2007 details a round table discussion between NEA Deputy Assistant Secretary J. Scott Carpenter and six leaders of Tunisian civil society to discuss democracy advocacy support.[lxv] Further context is provided in a further cable on democratization of the region in which it is recorded that then secretary Clinton :
…emphasized the importance of civil society’s role in the G8-BMENA Forum for the Future process. She highlighted the role youth play in the region; noted the use of technology as an important tool to reach young audiences; and said the USG wants to provide technological support to civil society. Civil society representatives expressed tremendous and heartfelt gratitude to the Secretary for her support for the Forum for the Future. Participants also expressed the need for continued USG support for civil society initiatives in the region, and stressed that the USG should not ignore issues such as human rights and democracy when engaging with governments in the region.[lxvi]
This reference to technology is key, as the reader may recall the earlier reference to Facebook in the cable mentioning Mr. Salah in Egypt, which brings us to a pertinent question, if the US had been attempting to overthrow these governments for some time (again, reform is in effect overthrow,) then why did the action occur in such a short space of time in 2010?
The answer to this puzzle seems to lie in lines of communication open to the societies in question. It is fairly well know that in Tunisia, media had been largely monopolized as mentioned in previously cited cables. An article from Al Jazeera summarises the context :
Article 1 of the Press Code in Tunisia provides for “freedom of the press, publishing, printing, distributing and sale of books and publications”. The Tunisian constitution asserts that the “liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly, and association are guaranteed and exercised within the conditions defined by the law”.
Yet as early as 1956, with the birth of the first republic under the leadership of President Habib Bourguiba, the ruling government gained control over the press – and later over broadcasting.
Civil society organisations, lawyers, academics, and trade unions do not have a platform to express their critical views on state media or ‘independent’ media.[lxvii]
The constant reference to technology and the involvement of Facebook in the US State Department’s Alliance of Youth Movements Summit offer a way to route around this media control in places such as Tunisia.[lxviii] It is notable that the US State Department in the cables, and in the very usage of “youth,” aimed at a segment of the Tunisian (and greater Middle East) population which was technologically connected and wealthy. Revolutions need organisation, and platforms such as Facebook provide a means for organisation. It is as simple as that. US fostered, organised, and funded social unrest for the overall aim of removing non-favoured regimes using platforms for organisation that the regimes in question could not control. Of course, the US power centers then worked very diligently to self-efface their role and the revolution became a force of nature and the will of the people, and not the predatory actions of unsecure power centers enforcing change in means that were illegitimate by their own rules of engagement. Interest in Facebook is notable in leaked cables such as one dated 20 February 2009 which is an actual report noting the increasing usage of Facebook and its potential for circumventing Tunisian government control.[lxix] Something even more pointedly revealed in an earlier cable dated 2008 August 19 on the blocking of Facebook which complains:
Clearly, the uncontrolled information sharing of social networking sites like Facebook is now beginning to worry the Tunisian authorities. Such sites provide a means to circumvent strict government control of domestic print and broadcast media. The decision to block Facebook has also stifled what was promising to be a very useful outreach tool for the Embassy.[lxx]
Another cable from 20 May 2008 shows that the issue of open access to the internet was so important to the US embassy that they raised the issue with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The concluding paragraph of this cable is darkly humorous given the results of protestor’s usage of social media to organise the overthrow of the government:
Even as the print media has shown some signs of increased openness, internet censorship continues apace, reflecting the paranoia that still restricts freedom of expression in Tunisia. For this to change, the GOT would have to accept that open and free debate is good for the country and the government. The baby steps on print media signify an important step in the right direction, but limits on internet access make clear the GOT still has a long way to go on freedom of expression.
It must be quite a bizarre and confusing experience being on the receiving end of US democratization. One actor aggressively presses for the opening up of society, whilst another then uses this same opening to engage with “civil actors” who are radicalized to press incessantly for reform or swift overthrow, all the while being told that this is actually good for oneself.
The strange processes that many of those engaged in this democratization go through tends to center around the concept of an apolitical space, which they mentally maintain whilst clearly negating it. This is something which connects all of the examples contained in this paper. From the creation of a secular area with the creation of religion, to the belief in autonomous “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan whilst shoveling obscene amounts of money and weapons into the region, to the constant reference to civil society and being apolitical whilst working to bring down entire governments such as in the case of Tunisia. A superb demonstration of this is presented by Facebook in an article titled “The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks” which reveals Facebook’s response to Tunisian government attempts to identify users identities:
At Facebook, Sullivan’s team decided to take an apolitical approach to the problem. This was simply a hack that required a technical response. “At its core, from our standpoint, it’s a security issue around passwords and making sure that we protect the integrity of passwords and accounts,” he said. “It was very much a black and white security issue and less of a political issue.”[lxxi]
But this claim doesn’t make sense, and neither does any claim to neutrality. Any action (and non-action counts as action) must by necessity favour one group over another. In this instance, you have the issue of the users in question breaching Facebook’s own policy on using real identities.[lxxii] So here we have a very selective enforcement of rules favouring a specific group which is then claimed to be neutral, but the impression the reader gets is that Sullivan does believe he acted in a neutral way. If Facebook had acted in a truly disinterested way, they would have enforced their own rules regarding the usage of real identities which would have led to the Syrian security agencies not having to hack passwords in the first place.
In summary, the problems that afflicted the Middle East and North Africa region in 2010 show a clear pattern which completely undermines any claim to spontaneity as per liberal theory. There is a clear pattern of increasing contact with actors opposed to the government, increased training and funding of these actors, as well as the clear moral support afforded by such actions. That this state of affairs would render the opposition both more competent and bolder is not difficult to surmise. That the snapping point was the widespread adoption of Facebook as a means of communication outside of Tunisian government (but not outside of US government) control is clear. The patron theory of politics holds yet again.
[i] See “The Patron Theory of Politics”contained in this journal volume.
[ii] William T. Cavanaugh The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.) pp. 124-127.
[iii] Ibid, p 127.
[iv] Ibid, p 130.
[v] Ibid, p 183.
[vi] Ibid, p 143.
[vii] Ibid, p 167.
[viii] Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: Its Nature and the History of Its Growth (USA, Beacon Press Boston, 1962.) p 179.
[ix] Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, p. 168.
[x] Ibid, p 167.
[xi] Ibid, p 70.
[xii] Ibid, P 69.
[xiii] Ibid, p 72.
[xiv] Ibid, p 71.
[xv] Ibid, pp 77-78.
[xvi] Ibid, p 78.
[xvii] Ibid, p 80.
[xviii] Steve Coll. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001, (London: Penguin Books, 2005), p. 182.
[xix] Ibid, p 408.
[xx] Ibid, p 150.
[xxi] Ibid, p 165.
[xxii] Ibid, p 77.
[xxiv] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 261.
[xxv] Laurent Murawiec, “The Saudi Takeover Of Al-azhar University,” Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 7, (December 2003,) accessed March 30, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/the-saudi-takeover-of-al-azhar-university-2/
[xxvi] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, p 194-196.
[xxvii] Ibid, p 134.
[xxviii] Ibid, p 38.
[xxix] ibid p 109.
[xxx] Ibid, p 210.
[xxxi] Ibid, p 104.
[xxxii] Judicial Watch, Department of Defense Information Report, 14-L-0552/DIA/ 289, accessed March 3, 2017, http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf.
[xxxiii] Zaid Jilani, “In Secret Goldman Sachs Speech, Hillary Clinton Admitted No-Fly Zone Would “Kill a Lot of Syrians,”” The Intercept, October 10, 2016, accessed March 30, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2016/10/10/in-secret-goldman-sachs-speech-hillary-clinton-admitted-no-fly-zone-would-kill-a-lot-of-syrians/.
[xxxiv] Coll, Ghost Wars, p 504.
[xxxv] Coll, Ghost Wars, p 505.
[xxxvi] Christina Lamb, “Covert US plan to arm rebels,” The Times, December 9, 2012, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/National/article1173125.ece.
[xxxvii] Tony Cartalucci, “The Mystery of ISIS’ Toyota Army Solved” New Eastern Outlook, October 9, 2015, accessed March 30, 2017, http://journal-neo.org/2015/10/09/the-mystery-of-isis-toyota-army-solved/.
[xxxviii] Coll, Ghost Wars, p 434.
[xxxix] Ibid, p 691.
[xl] Dan Glazbrook, “British Collusion with Sectarian Violence: Part One,” Russian Times, April 3, 2016, accessed mrch 30, 2017, https://www.rt.com/op-edge/338247-uk-extremists-syria-isis-violence/.
[xli] Tracy McVeigh, “‘Recruiter’ of UK jihadis: I regret opening the way to Isis,”” The Guardian, June 13, 2015, accessed March 30, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/13/godfather-of-british-jihadists-admits-we-opened-to-way-to-join-isis.
[xlii] Ron Nixon, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” The New York Times, April 14, 2011, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/world/15aid.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&emc=eta1.
[xliii] Embassy Egypt, “APRIL 6 ACTIVIST ON HIS U.S. VISIT AND REGIME CHANGE IN EGYPT,” Wikileaks Cable: 08CAIRO2572_a, dated December 30,2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08CAIRO2572_a.html.
[xliv] Embassy Egypt, “APRIL 6 ACTIVIST DESCRIBES GOE HARASSMENT, REQUESTS INFORMATION ON YOUTH MOVEMENTS SUMMIT,” Wikileaks Cable: 08CAIRO2431_a, dated November 26, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08CAIRO2431_a.html.
[xlvi] Ahmed Salah and Alex Mayyasi, “The Spark: Starting the Revolution,” The World Post, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ahmed-salah/egypt-january-25-revolution_b_3671877.html.
[xlviii] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution,” The New York Times, February 16, 2011, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/middleeast/17sharp.html.
[xlix] David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger, “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History,” The New York Times, February 13, 2011, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/world/middleeast/14egypt-tunisia-protests.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
[li] Yasmine Ryan, “How Tunisia’s revolution began,” Al Jazeera, January 26, 2011, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/01/2011126121815985483.html.
[lii] Embassy Tunisia, “UNION LEADER HIGHLIGHTS SHARED VALUES, DISILLUSION WITH US POLICY,” Wikileaks Cable: 07TUNIS246_a, dated February 22, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07TUNIS246_a.html.
[liii] For an overview of the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” see the White House archives entry at https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/freedomagenda/, accessed May 2, 2017.
[liv] Embassy Tunisia, “UNION LEADER HIGHLIGHTS SHARED VALUES, DISILLUSION WITH US POLICY,” Wikileaks Cable: 07TUNIS246_a, dated February 22, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07TUNIS246_a.html.
[lvii] Alexander, Christopher. Tunisia: From Stability to Revolution in the Maghreb, (New York, Routledge, 2016) p 74.
[lviii] Ibid, p 75.
[lix] Ibid, p 77.
[lx] Embassy Tunisa, “TROUBLED TUNISIA: WHAT SHOULD WE DO?,” Wikileaks Cable: 09TUNIS492_a, dated July 17, 2009, https://search.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09TUNIS492_a.html.
[lxv] Embassy Tunisia, “DAS CARPENTER’S ROUNDTABLE WITH TUNISIAN CIVIL SOCIETY”, Wikileaks Cable: 07TUNIS102_a, dated January 23, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07TUNIS102_a.html.
[lxvi] Embassy Morocco, “SECRETARY CHALLENGES BMENA CIVIL SOCIETY,” Wikileaks Cable: 09RABAT921_a, dated November 22, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09RABAT921_a.html.
[lxvii] Dr. Noureddine Miladi, “Tunisia: A media led revolution?,” Al Jazeera, January 17, 2011, accessed March 30, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/01/2011116142317498666.html.
[lxviii] For a list of attendees to the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit held in New York City between 3-5 December 2008 see: http://allyoumov.3cdn.net/f734ac45131b2bbcdb_w6m6idptn.pdf, accessed May 2, 2017.
[lxix] Embassy Tunisia, “GOT FRIENDS?: FACEBOOK POPULAR, DESPITE DOMESTIC SMEAR CAMPAIGN,” Wikileaks Cable: 09TUNIS99_a, dated February 20, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09TUNIS99_a.html.
[lxx] Embassy Tunisia, “FUN WHILE IT LASTED – FACEBOOK BLOCKED FROM TUNISIA,” Wikileaks Cable: 08TUNIS926_a, dated August 19, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08TUNIS926_a.html.
[lxxi] Alexis C. Madrigal, “The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks,” The Atlantic, January 24, 2011, accessed March 30, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/the-inside-story-of-how-facebook-responded-to-tunisian-hacks/70044/.
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