Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 2

For the Afghans, the new semester starts in about a week. From my perspective as an advisor, everything looks unsettled: changes to classrooms, registration, new student orientation, teaching schedules. To my eyes, those changes prefigure larger ones in the country, and many of the Afghans seem to me as ambivalent about the smaller ones as the larger ones. I’m sitting in on an interview for a new instructor tomorrow, talking with another instructor later this week about suitable internet readings for the English-language Current Events and Culture elective, still not quite sure what to make of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) attitude that prevails here and the apparent incuriousness that seems to be its analogue. The Afghans I’ve met are enormously skilled in spoken argument, good-humored, passionate, but seem almost imperturbable in the way they take everything as given.

Nobody seems terribly curious about Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria, or Libya, or at least they’re not willing to express as much to me. The translators and teachers that I work with use the internet, though they’re not nearly as attached to it as the Americans, and they aren’t as much interested in news from it as they are in culture — in YouTube videos, especially of Indian movies, and in Facebook. They’re more interested in radio and TV, and again the most popular TV programs seem to be Indian movies. That lack of interest in news frustrates me some because I’m eager to ask them what they think about the events in other countries in the region, and perhaps that implicit connection (is it as apparent to them as it is to me?) to their situation is why they’re reluctant to engage.

As I wrote last time, I think there is a connection between Egypt and Afghanistan, and a strong one, and it plays out in all sorts of ways with the topics I’ve been thinking about: the relationships between and among government, rhetoric, politics, organizing, technology, economics, and foreign intervention. The debates we’ve seen over what factors produced or contributed to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere — and who’s promoting which factors — seem to be absolutely key to questions of how governance is to work in those countries and what (if any) role foreign governments might have in answering those questions. Folks who study rhetoric and technology might have something to contribute to discussions of how democracies function in the 21st century. The assertions offered by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt as to the nature of those uprisings are as good a place as any to start:

The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression — not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

This is a claim both about the motivations of the rebels involved in the uprisings and about the way they represent themselves and are represented. As is the habit of Hardt and Negri, it hits many of its targets only glancingly because of its degree of abstraction: certainly there are problems with the dominant media’s relation to political and economic interests; certainly there are concerns with corruption; certainly there’s a desire for freedom of expression; certainly the ways people organize themselves into and communicate via and act among and within networks (as even a vexed a figure as General McChrystal has recently argued) need recognition; but all these things are a lot more concrete than Hardt and Negri’s theorizing might indicate. At some points, though, the connections between their claims about media, democracy, organizing, and rhetoric become (refreshingly) more clear, as when they assert that

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google’s head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre — that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure.

There it is! Symptoms, not causes: that starts to say something a little more intelligent — and a little more interesting — than the tired debate over whether the events in Egypt and elsewhere represent some sort of Facebook revolution. That’s what I’ll talk about here, and that look at the debate over the alleged Facebook revolution takes me to questions of access and privilege in relation to new media, social media, and mainstream media. Those questions, I assert, are fundamentally economic questions, even though those with the privilege of access to such media prefer not to think of them as such, because behind economic questions of access to media lie more fundamental economic questions of access to the basic needs of sustenance. The revolution in Egypt was in very large part about bread. Not a terribly surprising thing, maybe, but in the broader picture of how American development policy via USAID actually caused the shortages, troubling: Americans might happily celebrate the apparent pro-democracy internet freedoms we associate with Tahrir square, but what do we do when we realize that the longstanding design of our economic foreign policy is precisely what the rebels rose up against?


So to backtrack a little: Steve Coll, in the New York Review of Books, aptly summarizes the debate over whether or not we saw a Facebook revolution in the Middle East, and does an excellent job laying out the implications of the debate:

It is irrefutable that social media have had a part in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, as well as in ongoing protests in other Arab and Muslim nations, particularly those with sizable online and urban populations, such as Morocco and Bahrain. Facebook and other digital networks can speed political communication and provide efficient tools for organizing protests. In combination with satellite broadcasters such as al-Jazeera, online networks can document government abuses quickly and spread awareness of them. Even more, the promises of free speech, modernization, generational change, and global inclusion that these media offer — their very newness, and the way they connect people and ideas across borders — may also foster an incipient form of political identity for some in the fed-up urban classes in Arab societies and Iran. . . None of this is quite the same as accepting, as Ghonim evidently believes, that Internet use makes the liberation of oppressed societies more likely. That claim has been a subject of intense debate over the last several years among scholars, media executives, writers, Internet activists, and government officeholders. . . A question raised by this debate is whether the Internet, in comparison to previous communications technologies that also intensified connections among dispersed peoples — the telegraph, radio, television, telephones, fax machines, and cell phones — has unique properties that favor its users, “the people,” over centralized authorities. A related question involves what communications technology may actually do to advance free speech and assembly, or to help dissatisfied populations revolt. That is, are communications systems and media best understood merely as neutral means of transmission, largely incidental to the human and political struggles conducted over their lines and airwaves? Or, if a particular communications technology does, by its structure or effects, have a more active influence in bringing about political outcomes, what precisely is that influence?

Folks who do work in the field of computers and writing, with its dual focus on rhetoric and technology, have made these questions our bread and butter, and in our enthusiasms for digital toys, we’ve done our fair share of getting them wrong; of saying “But look what this can do!” without looking at the exclusions and inequalities and problematic tendencies this (whatever it is ) might perpetuate. But we also get it right on occasion, as in the habits scholars like Cindy Selfe and Charlie Moran and others have encouraged of examining how the ways we think about technologies are positioned in relation to who and what and where we are in the world, including our economic situations. Consider, for example, the sources of some examples of the competing narratives about Egypt.

One comes from a guest author for the technology blog ReadWriteWeb, Ahmed Zidan, who “lives in Egypt and is the Editor of Mideast Youth,” and writes,

Let’s trace the protests back across the Mediterranean. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid was the spark for the massive Tunisian protests that overthrew then-president Ben Ali. The Tunisian protests, in turn, were the spark for Egypt’s #Jan25. And it’s very relevant to name it #Jan25, because it was totally Internet driven. . . This is the first organized revolution of its kind in the history of mankind. It began with a Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said that called for this uprising. The social media tools were very critical in sparking these protests; the Internet is unmistakably the origin of the Egyptian protests.

I don’t think it’s in any way a knock on Zidan or his colleagues at Mideast Youth to say that theirs is a partial perspective: their project is admirable, but what Zidan doesn’t admit in his passion for social media is that Egypt is a nation riven by economic inequality and poverty, and that only about one fourth of Egypt’s population has access to the internet.

Another perspective comes from Cambridge academic Anne Alexander, who writes for the BBC that

the fact that an internet and mobile phone blockade failed shows clearly that this movement is not based on the web. In fact, the movement which erupted on 25 January has brought together many groups who have taken to the streets over the past 10 years. . . this movement builds on a legacy of protest by many different activist networks, most of which are not primarily organised online.

Others have pointed to the techno-boosterism of Al Jazeera English as evidence that news sources in the Middle East are themselves characterizing the events as a Facebook revolution and so — because of their geopolitical authenticity — it must be true. Consider the article “Tunisia’s Taste of Internet Freedom” and its description of the enthusiasm of Tunisians’ response to the promise by their President (who fled the country the same day the article was posted) of the “internet freedom” to access sites like YouTube. The article is by Jillian C. York, a blogger who works at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, an admirable organization, but one with a very specific focus. Commendably, York notes that Mohamed Bouazizi didn’t set himself on fire for YouTube, a point that seems to have escaped some of the commenters weighing in on the debate. Elsewhere, York usefully points out that participants in every conventional struggle have used the communicative and rhetorical tools available to them in their cultural, historical, and political context: Facebook itself is not especially democratic. With that insight about context in mind, we might do well to remember that the enthusiasm of Al Jazeera English for the Facebook narrative of Egyptian struggle comes from an organization with a large number of Westerners and technology enthusiasts on its staff, based in the country with the highest per capita GDP in the world. As Adel Iskandar notes in the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies,

the narrative of Al Jazeera as an “alternative” medium is problematic for several reasons. Since its inception, the station’s funding has come primarily from the Emir of Qatar, Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Aside from the degree of editorial independence, the very notion of complete government funding of a news outlet negates the notion of alterity. Furthermore, as stated above, the commercial nature of the network makes it similar in structure and hierarchy to the operations of major US and global satellite networks, generating revenue from exclusive sales of footage, documentary, direct feeds, and advertising for large global corporations.

Al Jazeera English is no more immune to the influence of its advertisers and sponsors and influences than Fox News. The same holds true for any media source, up to and including Luke Allnutt’s blog for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), wherein he argues that “these days a good deal of activism will have some kind of digital component. As a label, cyberdissident is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Activists fighting oppressive regimes want to get their messages out and, unlike politicians who tend to fetishise technology, they just want to use the most effective tool, whether that’s a print flyer, a sit-in, or a Facebook group — or a combination of all of the above.” (I admit my opinion of Allnutt’s perspective was somewhat improved when I found out that RFE/RL, the U.S.-funded “surrogate free press” for local news in nations without freedom of the press, has long since been divorced from its cold war era CIA funding and was in fact accused of being “soft on communism” during those years). The same circumstance of one’s perspective being bound by one’s context and background maintains for Evgeny Morozov, whose book The Net Delusion Steve Coll in the NYRB characterizes as “the most prominent book-length argument to date in opposition to the idea that the Internet is a force for liberation. His purpose is to refute what he calls ‘cyber-utopianism,’ which he defines as ‘a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication.” Coll finds it important to remark, as do I, that “Morozov was born in Belarus, which suffers from one of the world’s most repressive governments. There is zeal in his argument; he adopts an ardent and at times strident and attacking tone directed at Internet optimists. At least some of his fierceness appears to have been born of personal disillusionment.” This is rhetorical analysis at its most fundamental level: Morozov’s opinions owe a great deal to his background in Belarus, just as the embarrassingly lurid ultracapitalist fantasies of Алиса Розенбаум are impossible to imagine without understanding knowing of her childhood during the Russian revolution and the confiscation of her family’s livelihood by the Bolsheviks. What we need to undersand of Morozov as much as of Rand is that both their arguments seem at least in part to divorce a technology — online communication, market capitalism — from its cultural context. This is a problem: as Tom Slee notes, “If Facebook is a technology that delivers democracy, then we can trust it: more of it can only lead to more democracy. But if Facebook is a cultural phenomenon, then its meaning and role will change as it becomes mainstream — we need to treat it like we treat the record companies, the mainstream media, and our phone companies. Necessary, but not to be trusted.” Facebook is a small part of the factors that constitute the cultural context wherein the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere have taken place, and it should be understood as such, not as a technological cause.

This is precisely the argument made by Joseph Mayton, a Westerner and founding editor of Egyptian newsblog Bikyamasr:

There was no “Internet Revolution” in Egypt. It was not “Revolution 2.0.” It was a popular uprising that benefited from the use of the online services at some of the protesters hands. . . The reality is millions of the Egyptians that went to the streets probably don’t own a computer, and definitely were not checking Twitter or Facebook for where the next gathering was taking place.

Let’s look at some statistics to make it clear that it would be “virtually” impossible to have been an Internet revolution: the literacy rate, according to UNICEF in the country is 72 percent; the number of computer users is around 25 percent; around half the country lives on less than $2 per day. Put those three indicators together and one would be hard-pressed to find a massive online movement.

It may be sexy, even useful for Western media to cash in on the idea that this was Revolution 2.0, but that partially discredits the movement as a whole. Millions, approximately 55 million, do not log on to Facebook, don’t have Twitter accounts and do not have computers. Are they part of this Internet revolution? How could they?

Referring to an Internet revolution continues one of the main ways in which Egyptian society remained stratified for a number of decades. It was the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots are already being pushed aside by the domestic and local attempts to brand this revolution. We should be extremely cautious before dubbing a revolution an upper-class or upper-middle-class endeavor lest we forget those millions who struggled for the same cause under the same umbrella.

Technologies of literacy, digital or otherwise, do not function autonomously, outside of culture or economy, and they do not function without human access to those technologies. In that way, the struggles in Egypt even inasmuch as they might draw our attention to such technologies ought to also foreground the unequal access to those technologies and the economic bases for that inequality. In my last post, I made reference to the image of economic difference Wendell Steavenson uses to introduce his 2008 Prospect Magazine article about rising world food prices and the subsidized prices for bread in Egypt, and that image again seems to me to perfectly encapsulate the struggle over what the revolutions are about:

Drive over the bridge from the green Cairene island of Zamalek, from its tree-lined streets, grand embassy mansions and air-conditioned cappuccino cafés with wi-fi access, across the Nile into the grimy neighbourhood of Boulaq: 15 minutes of battered honking traffic to travel from rich to poor.

It feels a lot better for us to feel like the Egyptians are just as democratic as we are (because they’re using Facebook too!) than it does to consider the fact that the people in Egypt who don’t have the means to afford internet access are also the ones who can’t afford bread — thanks in part to American economic foreign policy — and that those people are actually the ones who sparked the revolt some Americans are myopically applauding as a Facebook revolution. As Annia Ciezadlo points out in the 23 March issue of Foreign Affairs,

In Tunisia, pro-democracy demonstrations began in late December 2010 with protesters brandishing baguettes… The revolutions, of course, are about more than just bread. Middle Easterners want basic human rights, dignity, and a chance at a decent future — good jobs at livable wages. But when a government puts those things out of reach for the majority of its citizens, using handouts or subsidies as a substitute for democratic or economic reforms, bread becomes a powerful symbol of all they cannot have. Today, the protests have spread all the way to Yemen, where demonstrators are baking loaves of bread that spell out the command ‘leave’ in Arabic. The message could not be clearer: the very commodity that Arab regimes once used to ensure obedience has now become a symbol and source of defiance.

So the question then becomes: how, exactly, did this situation come to pass? Why is Egypt importing the grain it needs to feed its population, and why is it then subsidizing bread purchases? The short answer, as Timothy Mitchell’s 1995 essay “The Object of Development: America’s Egypt” (in Crush, Jonathan, ed., Power of Development) compellingly argues, is that US economic foreign policy has promoted a shift in Egyptian consumption habits whereby the rich have shifted the uses of domestic grain production for animal feed to sustain an increasingly meat-based diet, leaving the poor to rely on an increased need to use imported grain to bake bread. Mitchell paraphrases the World Bank’s acknowledgement that “the growing disparity in income between rich and poor enabled the better off to divert the country’s resources from the production of staples to the production of luxury items” (131), and demonstrates that

[i]t is this switch to meat consumption, rather than the increase in population, that has required the dramatic inrease in food imports, particularly of grains. Between 1966 and 1988, the population of Egypt grew by 75 per cent. In the same period, the domestic production of grains increased by 77 per cent but total grain consumption increased by 148 per cent, or almost twice the rate of population increase. Egypt began to import enormous and ever increasing quantities of grain, becoming the world’s third largest importer after Japan and China… The dependence on grain imports sine 1974 has been caused not by population growth, which lagged behind the growth of domestic grain production, but by a shift to the consumption of meat. This shift has been obscured, however, by the way different grains have been used. Rather than importing animal feed directly, Egypt has diverted domestic production from human to animal consumption. Human consumption of maize (corn) and other coarse grains (barley, sorghum) dropped from 53 per cent in 1966 to 6 per cent in 1988 (USAID/c 1989a:209). Human supplies were made up with imports, largely of wheat for bread making. So it appears as though the imports were required not to feed animals supplying the increased demand for meat, but because the people needed more bread. USAID has supported the shift to meat consumption among the better off since 1975 by financing at reduced interest rates over US$3 billion worth of Egyptian grain imports from the United States, making Egypt the world’s largest importer of subsidized grains. (129-130)

In other words, the shift in consumption habits among Egyptians that led to a reliance on imported grains and thereby to their being hit harder by the spike in global food prices that sparked the uprising was a direct result of US policy. This is why paying attention to the economic context of events that may on the surface seem to offer the promise of increased democracy and prosperity through technology, to paraphrase Cindy Selfe, is absolutely and crucially important. The ostensible goal of the USAID project was to decentralize and privatize Egypt’s economy in order to promote economic development; in order — so the argument often goes — to promote a rising economic tide that would lift all boats. This did not happen. A certain kind of economic development did occur, though: “when it transfers resources to an existing system of inequality,” Mitchell asserts, “decentralization and privatization are liable to reinforce that inequality” (140). Consider the way some of the privatization initiatives Mitchell describes were implemented:

In education, for example, USAID has been pushing for the introduction of private schooling in Egypt at the secondary and university level and, on a more modest level, for a scheme to sell advertising space on the covers of school exercise books (USAID/w 1988:76-8). In healthcare, for which USAID budgeted only $246 million from 1975 to 1989, representing 1.6 per cent of total non-military assistance to Egypt, the sum of $95 million (almost 40 per cent of the health budget) was scheduled for privatization programmes. . . One of the advantages of selective private healthcare is its increased dependence on imported US drugs and equipment. (141)

Such examples may feel familiar to those who have followed the implementation of recent initiatives related to education and healthcare in the United States. As Mitchell begins to make clear in the above quotation, not only did these privatization initiatives contribute to rising inequality and dependency on foreign aid in Egypt, they also served as a source of American profits. The so-called foreign aid provided by American policy actually benefits the American economy at Egypt’s expense, while at the same time contributing to the economic inequality that eventually boiled over in Tahrir Square. Mitchell’s numbers — derived from US government statistics — are devastating: “USAID’s role as a source of subsidies to American agriculture and industry can be seen by examining how it spent the US$15 billion budget for ‘Economic Assistance’ to Egypt from the start of its operations there in 1974 up to 1989… Almost every penny of this amount… was actually allocated to American corporations” (146), and of that $15 billion,

a total of US$8.7 billion, or 58 per cent of all US economic assistance, was spent directly in the United States rather than on development projects in Egypt, and most of this ‘American aid’ in fact represents money paid by Egypt to America… The remaining 42 per cent of US economic assistance funds to Egypt, totalling US$6.3 billion, were earmarked for development projects within the country… Yet none of this money was transferred directly to Egypt. The entire amount… was spent in the United States, or on American contractors in Egypt… In other words, the local implementation expenses of development projects (and even the local operating costs of the USAID mission in Cairo) are paid by the Egyptian government, in exchange for commodities imported from the United States… Thus USAID operates, more or less successfully, as a form of state support to the American private sector, while working in Egypt to dismantle state supports. (147-149)

Here’s the point: the uprising in Egypt, sparked by economic inequality and bread that the poor could no longer afford, was and is promoted as a Facebook revolution, when the people in Egypt who use Facebook are the same ones who eat meat and sustain and benefit from that economic inequality.

This would all be cause enough for dismay and anger, but in light of the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, and the violent deaths that have resulted, it’s an incomplete picture, as the arguments with which Mitchell concludes his chapter illustrate: “The US$15 billion of assistance between 1974 and 1989 represents only about one half of US aid to Egypt. The other half consists of economic assistance to the Egyptian military… [which,] with the support of American funds, has developed into a major presence within the country’s economy. Its arms industries, which receive state subsidies but whose income goes into military rather than national accounts, is the country’s largest manufacturing sector” (150). The New York Times offers supporting (and damning) evidence of the effects of this military economic assistance in its 5 March 2011 story showing how “some of the Egyptian military’s for-profit ventures have created quandaries for administrators of the [US] Foreign Military Sales program, according to experts. In some cases, military products and for-profit goods sold to civilians are manufactured inside a single armed forces-owned complex.” In fact, the story notes, “with Washington giving Cairo $1.3 billion a year in military aid, . . . Egypt’s for-profit military has sometimes found ways to use that aid to further its economic interests. A review of the aid program raises questions about a variety of ventures — from the acquisition of a fleet of luxury Gulfstream jets to a company making Jeeps for commercial sale as well as for the army.” In addition to that gift of $1.3 billion per year in military aid to Egypt, there were also “sales of U.S. defense items for Egypt ($101 million) and Bahrain ($88 million). The figures showed $458,000 in tear gas sales licensed to Egypt, where there were numerous reports that U.S.-supplied crowd control gas suppressed democracy protesters in Cairo” (Stephen Braun, Salon).

So: US economic policy sows economic inequality in Egypt in order to profit American corporations and in so doing starves the Egyptian underclass and effectively foments revolution, Egyptian security forces then use American-purchased tear gas to attempt to suppress that revolution, American journalists eagerly declare it a victory for democracy via Facebook, and Americans spread the word via Twitter. Here’s Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Luke Allnutt again:

Twitter revolution narratives are popular because rather than being about Tunisia, they are often really about ourselves. When we glorify the role of social media we are partly glorifying ourselves. Some of us are not only praising the tools we know and love and use every day, but also the tools we build and have stakes in. To proclaim a Twitter revolution is almost a form of intellectual colonialism, stealthy and mildly delusional: We project our world, our values, and concerns onto theirs and we shouldn’t.

I’ve pursued this winding and ungainly conglomeration of an attempted argument because I’ve come to care a lot about the Afghans I’m working with here — I want this mission to help them to succeed, and to help them be able to build a secure, peaceful, and prosperous nation — and I think there are obvious parallels in what I’ve described above to Afghanistan, where a significant component of the current wreckage of the nation is directly traceable to American cold war interests, where retired General Stanley McChrystal argues in Foreign Policy that both the insurgency and the counterinsurgency are revolving around a form of cellphone-enabled network warfare, where the immaterial labor and immaterial capital of education and literacy instruction are acknowledged to be central aspects of what we now call stability operations, and where U.S. military sales to Afghanistan are paying for textbooks, for language instruction, for computer literacy instruction. In such a context, neither Americans nor Afghans can afford a techno-utopianism that promotes technology as existing beyond human labor and agency and beyond cultural and economic context. Such techno-utopianism easily eclipses the material realities of human struggle, violence, and inequality, and contributes to the myth that learning (or writing, or democracy) will be automagically easier if we can only use (never mind afford) the right digital tools.

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