Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 27, 2009

Flotsam and Jetsam

“Transparency” doesn’t mean actually giving the public prompt access to press conference transcripts, does it?

Nathan Diament points out that now that they have been elected the Democrats’ fondness for values voters is fading — at least when it comes to spending money. He explains: “President Obama and congressional leaders have decided that billions of dollars in school modernization projects will aid America’s ailing economy by creating thousands of jobs to perform the work, and that such projects will also be wise investments in America’s energy independence and improving our children’s learning. They have, therefore, allocated $14 billion of the $825 billion economic recovery package to such ‘green schools’ initiatives. But the Democrats have, so far, excluded parochial and other nonpublic schools from eligibility in the multibillion-dollar program, even though modernizing these schools would achieve the identical goals of job creation and energy efficiency. It is this unfair exclusion that will rile religious voters.”

Should Republicans be getting nervous about Katon Dawson as a potential RNC chair? Objecting to government-required desegregation isn’t the sort of thing one wants to defend, says J.Peter Freire. Others are imagining what the headlines will look like if he is elected.

An interesting Rasmussen poll: “Nearly two-thirds of U.S. voters (64%) say U.S. Supreme Court decisions should be based on what is written in the Constitution, but only 35% think President Obama agrees with them.”

Should we nationalize the banks? Steven Calabresi says: “Of course banks should not be nationalized. To ask this question is like asking whether Federal Express and UPS should be nationalized and their functions turned over to the U.S. Postal Service. Government does a poor job of running things. It makes decisions for political and not economic reasons. Government run corporations were a disaster in Western Europe after World War II and throughout the Communist block. It would be a huge mistake for the government to take over the banking industry. In fact it was government pressure to make foolish loans to uncreditworthy buyers through Freddie and Fannie that helped get us into this mess in the first place. The government should come up with a program to privatize the banks it now owns while putting rules in place to assure that banks are more cautious about lending in the future.”

Jeffrey Goldberg has a point: ” Egypt is warning Hamas to cut a ceasefire deal with the Olmert government now, because it will find it far more difficult to deal with Bibi Netanyahu, who is the leading candidate for prime minister in the upcoming election. If I were a Bibi adviser, I’d take this gift and run with it. ”

The non sequitur award goes to George Mitchell for this one: “[T]here is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings.” Huh? Well, yeah, they can, but they often aren’t for a very long time. Unless, of course, one side is able to defeat the other side militarily (e.g. WWII, Civil War).

The State Department sounds saner (think about that for a moment): “Special Envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the cease-fire in Gaza, establish an effective and credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the reopening of border crossings, and develop an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction, and reinvigorate the peace process.” Eventual is the operative word.

This from one of the President’s most earnest defenders in the blogosphere is almost right: “Obama wastes no time sending Middle East envoy Sen. George Mitchell out on assignment.” (Just an extra “no.”)

Sen John Cornyn voted for Geithner’s confirmation and Sen. Arlen Specter voted against it. Go figure.

 New Yorkers blame Princess Caroline for messing up her own coronation.

The Wall Street Journal editors chide Nancy Pelosi for suggesting increased spending on contraceptives will “reduce cost to the states and federal government” by presumably controlling the population. The editors’ sub-caption reads: “Pelosi should abstain from social engineering.” But then what would she do all day?

Senator Winfrey? Yeah — how silly is the idea of a fabulously wealthy, national celebrity with no political experience in the U.S. Senate?

“Transparency” doesn’t mean actually giving the public prompt access to press conference transcripts, does it?

Nathan Diament points out that now that they have been elected the Democrats’ fondness for values voters is fading — at least when it comes to spending money. He explains: “President Obama and congressional leaders have decided that billions of dollars in school modernization projects will aid America’s ailing economy by creating thousands of jobs to perform the work, and that such projects will also be wise investments in America’s energy independence and improving our children’s learning. They have, therefore, allocated $14 billion of the $825 billion economic recovery package to such ‘green schools’ initiatives. But the Democrats have, so far, excluded parochial and other nonpublic schools from eligibility in the multibillion-dollar program, even though modernizing these schools would achieve the identical goals of job creation and energy efficiency. It is this unfair exclusion that will rile religious voters.”

Should Republicans be getting nervous about Katon Dawson as a potential RNC chair? Objecting to government-required desegregation isn’t the sort of thing one wants to defend, says J.Peter Freire. Others are imagining what the headlines will look like if he is elected.

An interesting Rasmussen poll: “Nearly two-thirds of U.S. voters (64%) say U.S. Supreme Court decisions should be based on what is written in the Constitution, but only 35% think President Obama agrees with them.”

Should we nationalize the banks? Steven Calabresi says: “Of course banks should not be nationalized. To ask this question is like asking whether Federal Express and UPS should be nationalized and their functions turned over to the U.S. Postal Service. Government does a poor job of running things. It makes decisions for political and not economic reasons. Government run corporations were a disaster in Western Europe after World War II and throughout the Communist block. It would be a huge mistake for the government to take over the banking industry. In fact it was government pressure to make foolish loans to uncreditworthy buyers through Freddie and Fannie that helped get us into this mess in the first place. The government should come up with a program to privatize the banks it now owns while putting rules in place to assure that banks are more cautious about lending in the future.”

Jeffrey Goldberg has a point: ” Egypt is warning Hamas to cut a ceasefire deal with the Olmert government now, because it will find it far more difficult to deal with Bibi Netanyahu, who is the leading candidate for prime minister in the upcoming election. If I were a Bibi adviser, I’d take this gift and run with it. ”

The non sequitur award goes to George Mitchell for this one: “[T]here is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings.” Huh? Well, yeah, they can, but they often aren’t for a very long time. Unless, of course, one side is able to defeat the other side militarily (e.g. WWII, Civil War).

The State Department sounds saner (think about that for a moment): “Special Envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the cease-fire in Gaza, establish an effective and credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the reopening of border crossings, and develop an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction, and reinvigorate the peace process.” Eventual is the operative word.

This from one of the President’s most earnest defenders in the blogosphere is almost right: “Obama wastes no time sending Middle East envoy Sen. George Mitchell out on assignment.” (Just an extra “no.”)

Sen John Cornyn voted for Geithner’s confirmation and Sen. Arlen Specter voted against it. Go figure.

 New Yorkers blame Princess Caroline for messing up her own coronation.

The Wall Street Journal editors chide Nancy Pelosi for suggesting increased spending on contraceptives will “reduce cost to the states and federal government” by presumably controlling the population. The editors’ sub-caption reads: “Pelosi should abstain from social engineering.” But then what would she do all day?

Senator Winfrey? Yeah — how silly is the idea of a fabulously wealthy, national celebrity with no political experience in the U.S. Senate?

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Egypt’s Facebook Dissidents

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Samantha Shapiro presents a compelling account of how young Egyptian dissidents have used Facebook as a tool for mass mobilization.  As I can confirm from my own research in Cairo on this issue, Shapiro gets most of this story right.  Here’s the short version: last year, a handful of activists associated with the opposition Ghad party used Facebook to publicize a protest scheduled for April 6th, ultimately attracting 70,000 members to its “April 6th Movement” Facebook group online.  Insofar as this rattled the Mubarak regime, it was considered a huge success.  Indeed, the regime deployed soldiers throughout downtown Cairo to deter demonstrators, and further showed signs of panic when it arrested organizer Esraa Abdel Fattah – a shocking rarity, as Abdel Fattah is a woman.

However, Shapiro omits one of the key events catalyzing the decline of the “Facebook Party” since the April 6th protests – namely, the Facebook activists’ failure to stage a follow-up protest on May 4th, 2008, which was intended to coincide with President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.  In this instance, the regime completely outmaneuvered the activists.  First, a few days prior to the proposed May 4th demonstration, the Egyptian government announced a 30 percent wage increase for state employees, thus killing the Facebook activists’ popular momentum.  Then, on May 6th – once the target date for the demonstration had passed – the government negated the wage increase by announcing massive price-hikes in gasoline (46 percent!), cigarettes, and other goods.  This severely discouraged many activists, who quickly adopted a “nothing changes” attitude that persists today.

In the months since the abortive May 4th demonstration, the regime has used a number of additional strategies for undermining the Facebook-based dissidents.  First, the regime has used violence against certain web activists, including the infamous beating of Facebook organizer Ahmed Maher.  Second, the regime has improved its monitoring of Egyptian bloggers, instituting new technology in web cafes for tracking Internet usage.  Third, the regime has worked to sow divisions among the web-based activists.  In this vein, the regime broadcast Esraa Abdel Fattah’s release from prison on state-run television, showing her weeping and running into her mother’s arms.  This outraged Abdel Fattah’s fellow activists, who accused Abdel Fattah of weakness and excluded her from their circle.

In short, even as young Egyptian dissidents have attempted to leverage new technology for challenging the regime, the Egyptian government has used classic authoritarian strategies – devious maneuvering, improved domestic monitoring, divide-and-conquer tactics, and violence – with great success.  Sadly, dissidents’ prospects are unlikely to improve anytime soon: in the aftermath of the recent fighting in Gaza, the U.S. is relying on Cairo to negotiate a sustainable ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and is therefore unlikely to press the Mubarak regime on domestic reform.  Indeed, in the aftermath of the short-lived “freedom agenda,” realpolitik has returned to Middle Eastern foreign policy – with young Egyptian liberals shouldering some of the burden.

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Samantha Shapiro presents a compelling account of how young Egyptian dissidents have used Facebook as a tool for mass mobilization.  As I can confirm from my own research in Cairo on this issue, Shapiro gets most of this story right.  Here’s the short version: last year, a handful of activists associated with the opposition Ghad party used Facebook to publicize a protest scheduled for April 6th, ultimately attracting 70,000 members to its “April 6th Movement” Facebook group online.  Insofar as this rattled the Mubarak regime, it was considered a huge success.  Indeed, the regime deployed soldiers throughout downtown Cairo to deter demonstrators, and further showed signs of panic when it arrested organizer Esraa Abdel Fattah – a shocking rarity, as Abdel Fattah is a woman.

However, Shapiro omits one of the key events catalyzing the decline of the “Facebook Party” since the April 6th protests – namely, the Facebook activists’ failure to stage a follow-up protest on May 4th, 2008, which was intended to coincide with President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.  In this instance, the regime completely outmaneuvered the activists.  First, a few days prior to the proposed May 4th demonstration, the Egyptian government announced a 30 percent wage increase for state employees, thus killing the Facebook activists’ popular momentum.  Then, on May 6th – once the target date for the demonstration had passed – the government negated the wage increase by announcing massive price-hikes in gasoline (46 percent!), cigarettes, and other goods.  This severely discouraged many activists, who quickly adopted a “nothing changes” attitude that persists today.

In the months since the abortive May 4th demonstration, the regime has used a number of additional strategies for undermining the Facebook-based dissidents.  First, the regime has used violence against certain web activists, including the infamous beating of Facebook organizer Ahmed Maher.  Second, the regime has improved its monitoring of Egyptian bloggers, instituting new technology in web cafes for tracking Internet usage.  Third, the regime has worked to sow divisions among the web-based activists.  In this vein, the regime broadcast Esraa Abdel Fattah’s release from prison on state-run television, showing her weeping and running into her mother’s arms.  This outraged Abdel Fattah’s fellow activists, who accused Abdel Fattah of weakness and excluded her from their circle.

In short, even as young Egyptian dissidents have attempted to leverage new technology for challenging the regime, the Egyptian government has used classic authoritarian strategies – devious maneuvering, improved domestic monitoring, divide-and-conquer tactics, and violence – with great success.  Sadly, dissidents’ prospects are unlikely to improve anytime soon: in the aftermath of the recent fighting in Gaza, the U.S. is relying on Cairo to negotiate a sustainable ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and is therefore unlikely to press the Mubarak regime on domestic reform.  Indeed, in the aftermath of the short-lived “freedom agenda,” realpolitik has returned to Middle Eastern foreign policy – with young Egyptian liberals shouldering some of the burden.

Read Less




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