Belmont Club

Making Sense of Things

Skirmishes broke out between police and protesters outside Manama in Bahrain. “Shops stayed closed and shuttered, the streets were clear of cars amid a heavy police presence”. The NYT reports:

there were calls for universities to close in anticipation of what organizers here have called Bahrain’s own “Day of Rage,” a demonstration modeled after the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Similar scenes were being played out in Iran, Jordan and Yemen, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The smell of tear gas was in the air in central Tehran from reported clashes near Tehran and Amirkabir universities. Meanwhile, thousands more people who turned out for the main scheduled march were walking quietly along the sidewalks toward Azadi Square as thousands of police looked on.

In Yemen, demonstators clashed with police as “around 3,000 protesters marched from Sanaa University towards Al-Tahrir square in the centre of the capital demanding that Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, step down”.

City streets around the square echoed to chants of “After Mubarak, Ali,” referring to the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who quit after 18 days of protests by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians centered on Cairo’s main square, also named Tahrir.

Shouts of “No corruption after today,” reverberated through the narrow streets, while some demonstrators brandished banners reading: “The people want to oust the regime” — slogans used by protesters in Egypt.

It was hot time in the old region, a situation made all the more uncertain by worries over which side could capture the momentum of events. As the Iranian government prepared to crack down on its dissidents, it cheered on the Egyptians and Tunisians, and probably the Bahraini protesters, who were largely Shi’ite in a Sunni majority country.

Diplomats say Bahrain’s demonstrations, organized on the social media websites Facebook and Twitter, will be a gauge of whether a larger base of Shi’ites can be drawn on to the streets. The big test will be if demonstrations take hold in Manama, where demonstrations are rare.

Big protests in the Gulf Arab island state could embolden other marginalized Shi’ites in nearby Saudi Arabia, political analysts say. Diplomats say Bahrain’s demonstrations, organized on the social media websites Facebook and Twitter, will be a gauge of whether a larger base of Shi’ites can be drawn on to the streets. The big test will be if demonstrations take hold in Manama, where demonstrations are rare.

Big protests in the Gulf Arab island state could embolden other marginalized Shi’ites in nearby Saudi Arabia, political analysts say.

However most eyes were glued on developments in Iran, where crowds were measured in the hundreds of thousands, according to the Financial Times, despite the pre-emptive crackdown by the government. A new kind of instant documentary debuted in Toronto where The Green Wave, a production based on blogs, animation and cellphone video made its debut at a human rights festival. Below is YouTube video that hasn’t been shown by the major news sources yet. Action on the streets of Teheran is said to be substantial.

[youtube zxQp1Tptr8Y]

The Obama administration is still struggling to keep pace with fast changing developments in Egypt and may not have a handle on events cropping up everywhere. SFGate writes that “in the 18 days it took massive demonstrations to force a once-immobile American ally to relinquish power, the Obama administration revised its message several times. While talking points solidified around non-violence, universal rights and orderly political change, the administration’s initial response to the protests was muted.”

Although former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said, “anytime you have a situation like this, you’re going to have some confusion, no matter how well oiled the machine might be and how seasoned the people are” the more natural conclusion is that Washington, like Riyadh and Teheran, is completely uncertain which way the situation will go. Hillary Clinton made a first attempt at establishing US policy by accusing Teheran of “hypocrisy” and asserting that Iranians had the same rights as Egyptians.

But the administration’s attempts to bestride events seem hollow. What appears to be happening is that everything in the Middle east is the same as it always was, only more so, and in a way that has shredded the diplomatic green baize routine. None of the hatreds, fault lines, corruption, ethnic divisions, schisms and vendettas of the region have been resolved; only now they are in the open and clamoring in the street, fueled by Google, Facebook and Twitter. The policy of kicking the can down the road has suddenly stopped working. All the problems which diplomats thought they had decades to solve are now simultaneously coming to the table, urgent, immediate and uncompromising.

In decades past the West could impose a kind of queue on the incoming threads and marshal resources for their orderly resolution. The current crisis threatens to blow past the elaborately constructed edifices of the EU, UN, IMF and group of industrialized countries the way German Panzers blasted past the Maginot Line. What may be failing, in addition to the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, is the entire International System.

After the shock and euphoria of change fade next few months, the resolution of the problems which have been so abundantly thrown up will come down to the primitive things: supplies of energy, food, logistics, information and military force. It would be ironic indeed if the 21st century ushered in, not the suave, international order that Eurocrats predicted, but a Hobbesian world in which the new rules have yet to be determined.

Watching the video below is almost like re-reading the last two weeks of Belmont Club posts. If the readers go back to this site’s commentary on events in Egypt, the similarities between Niall Ferguson’s conclusions and the posts is striking. But if Ferguson is correct in whole or in part, the question is: why was it so easy for commentators to see yet so difficult for the administration to perceive?

[youtube V9sMo-LTdSc]

If the “international system” is indeed broken then the answer is obvious. The system as constituted is designed to promote the wrong kind of people to power, to detect the wrong sorts of facts and respond in accordance to priorities which bear no relationship to current events. Just look at how nonplussed the media people in the clip above are. They are living on a different planet. Now maybe the news readers are living in the correct universe and Ferguson is living in the wrong one, but it is indisputable that they are inhabiting separate universes.


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