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Archive for February, 2011

A Skyful of Lies

The recent upsurge in the streets of the Arab world has been force-multiplied by the planned (and unplanned) use of both internet and the media, Twitter, Facebook, Al-Jazeera, CNN, etc have all chipped in. Joining the dominos Tunisia and Egypt that have fallen, Yemen, Algeria and Bahrain are tottering, Libya is now in a state of virtual civil war. After vicious “remedial” action, the King of Bahrain decided good sense was the better part of bull-headedness in calling off his troops from the streets. With his Eastern Region in protestor control, Muammar Gaddafi is behaving as the mad man that he is to hang on to his last bastion in Tripoli. US and EU leaders repeatedly cautioned the authoritarian regimes they were previously not only comfortable (but virtually in bed) with against the naked use of brute force, including fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships in Libya, against largely peaceful demonstrations. The commentators may be speaking different languages to describe the unprecedented images on TV screens, the content is the same.

How the modern revolution has been conceived, nurtured and implemented is by itself a study. To win a battle without bloodying swords” (Tsun Tse Tzu), the media (and now the internet) can be used and/or misused. Nik Gowing’s book, “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans” qualifies as a modern day primer for today’s practitioners of political science across the divide from democracy to dictatorship to understand the “new art of war”. Stephen Stern holds Nik Gowing’s analysis as daunting but completely dispelling, “Information now travels around the world so fast and in such quantities that all kinds of organisations – governments, businesses – are struggling to respond fast enough or effectively enough. As a result, there is a new vulnerability, fragility and brittleness of power which weakens both the credibility and accountability of governments, the security organs and corporate institutions. This often occurs at the height of a crisis, just when you need clarity from senior executives. No matter that the information – noise – which is being spread may be inaccurate, or only partly true. Leaders have to respond, and faster than used to be necessary. The new core challenge is the tyranny of the timeline”. Awash in money and resources and complacent about the expanse of their power, the Arab regimes were not geared to cope with the blinding speed that information dissemination played in the upheavals.


Into the Frying Pan

For a few heady hours following Hosni Mobarak’s exit from power after 30 years of dictatorial rule during which he (and his family) managed to “save” US $ 40 billion from the salaries paid to him as a public servant of an impoverished nation, the successful revolt in the streets sent hopes soaring about impending freedom and a functioning democracy that would sustain the citizen’s aspirations. Rid of another “indispensable” Pharaoh, Egyptians must be forgiven for believing in this ridiculous farce, at least for sometime.

Who wields power in Egypt today? Appointed Vice President only a few days ago, Gen Omar Suleman, Mobarak’s Intelligence and Security Chief for 18 years, was notorious for torturing political prisoners himself. Barring a handful of skeptics, western leaders gushed “ad nauseam” for days over Mobarak’s dreaded enforcer as the designated successor. In the evolving circumstances Omar Suleman became a distinct liability like his boss. Remaining ahead of the game before their own troops started to refuse their orders, the “Higher Military Council” led by Defence Minister and Armed Forces Chief, 77-year old Field Marshal Tantawi, converted their quiet attempt to push out Mobarak gracefully into a sudden firm shove in the middle of the night.



More often than not Western analysts routinely draw their perceptions from the gossip on the cocktail circuit, mostly conforming to that reported by Embassy staffers. From time to time someone will give views contrary to that which are fashionable, these are soon drowned out by contemptuous skepticism. Only when the streets come afire are the right inferences drawn, sometime it is too late. The Tunisian Army did not intervene to save Ben Ali when his security apparatus failing to quell the street protests and his mafia-like family were driven out of power, the analysts still failed to see the lurking danger in other Arab capitals. The images from Cairo’s Tahrir Square said it all (and quite graphically), with civilians clambering onto tanks and armoured carriers it was all over bar the shouting. It is intellectual bankruptcy if anyone seems to think that Mubarak’s Intelligence Chief, Omar Suleiman, the man responsible for most of Mubarak’s excesses, has the answers to Egypt’s craving for democracy.

Brig (later Lt Gen) Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, then Pakistan’s Defence Attaché in Egypt, was standing only a few feet away when the assassin’s bullet struck Anwar Sadat. Mubarak wielded absolute power as the “Pharaoh of Egypt” for 30 years in 1981. Ruling Egypt since with an iron hand, Hosni Mubarak beggared Egypt while becoming rich himself, he and his family are reportedly worth US$40 billion (and some change). Poor countries can hardly afford rich leaders but the same story is repeated in other family run Arab “democracies”, a figleaf meant to hide brutal and corrupt dictatorships. The demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt did not materialize out of thin air because of any single source of disaffection, it was a mass outpouring of pent-up rage accumulated over the years. These spontaneous uprisings mainly comprise common citizens that have been made “beggar and/or thieves” by the greed, nepotism, corruption and sheer callousness of their leaders. During the Annual Summit 2011 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) it was pathetic seeing those who used to fall over themselves to flaunt their close affiliation to the “royal” families of Mubarak, Ben Ali, King Abdullah, etc seek now to distance themselves by publicly disparaging their conduct and behaviour, talk about rats deserting a sinking ship!



The theme for the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the beautiful ski resort of Davos-Klosters, “Shared Norms for the New Reality, very aptly mirrors the topmost concern of many leaders today. The erosion of common values is growing in a world that is increasingly becoming more complex and interconnected as well as undermining public trust in leadership, future economic growth and political stability. The rapidly developing events in Egypt emphasized the importance of the four thematic clusters under consideration, aiming to provide each participant with strategic insights, viz (1) responding to the new reality, (2) the economic outlook and defining policies for inclusive growth (3) supporting the G20 agenda and (4) building a global risk response mechanism.

Contrary to common perception, far from being a get-together of global leaders with a club of rich people to exchange notes in the daytime and have a ball at night, Davos provides a unique platform for leaders of governments, civil society, industry and the media as well as a wide spectrum of decision-makers to trade ideas on how to solve common pressing problems.