Reading the Qaddafis

For a family of autocrats, the Qaddafis sure have a lot to say about democracy. In 1975, six years after coming to power in Libya, Muammar (“Colonel Qaddafi”) penned his famous Green Book (the one he held in his hands during his televised tirade last week). It’s a typically rambling but fascinating treatise that proposes direct democracy via popular councils as a more democratic alternative to western multiparty systems. Not that Libya under Qaddafi has ever come close to resembling anything other than a dictatorship. Still, it’s amusing–if that’s the right word–to read the man currently directing the slaughter of his own people waxing philosophically about achieving “true democracy.”

Muammar’s son, Saif, who delivered the chilling warning to demonstrators about coming “rivers of blood” in the Libyan streets, one-upped his old man with his 2007 dissertation as a philosophy student at the London School of Economics (you can read the whole thing here). Based on the thesis, Saif, known as the good son for his work running a human rights advocacy group, might as well be the next John Rawls, whom he cites throughout, although according to Saif, Rawls’ view of international justice doesn’t go far enough in defending the rights of individual citizens, predicated as it is on structures based on “peoples” rather than “persons.” The ironies in Saif’s thesis, beginning with his statement of purpose–“In this thesis I shall be primarily concerned with what I argue is the central failing of the current system of global governance in the new global environment: that it is highly undemocratic”–start to beat you over the head after a while, as he goes on, and on, about correcting the “democracy deficit” in international politics.

He later writes:

There are real and important motivations for cooperation based on rational and reasonable premises, following the arguments of Hume, Rawls and McClennen outlined in Chapter Four, and real costs for uncooperative behaviour. This does not mean that all states and all individuals will always act rationally and reasonably and cooperate and there will be no conflicts. But it does mean that there are real incentives for states to act rationally and reasonably and to cooperate. There is also a real price to pay for uncooperative behaviour for the future relationship: loss of legitimacy, partnerships, reciprocal cooperative actions, and reduction of ‘soft power.’

Here’s to hoping those words prove true in 2011 and that Saif and family soon pay a very, very real price for their own “uncooperative behavior.”

Their Victory, Not Ours

The full story appears on Huffington Post.

In an article today for Slate, entitled “America is Freedom, and Freedom is Winning,” Eliot Spitzer grandly presents the popular uprisings in the Middle East as vindication of American ideals.

“The revolutions are being led by largely secular thinkers: young educated, and for whom Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are appealing leaders, not Hu Jintao or Muammar Qaddafi,” he writes. “We are winning — despite our errors, flaws, and occasional horrific mistakes.”

I share Spitzer’s euphoria over the transformation sweeping the region, as I do his conviction that Egyptians, Tunisians and others in the Arab world have no desire to emulate Iranian theocracy or Al Qaeda-esque fundamentalism.

But this is their victory, not ours. It’s true that a number of the revolutionaries have professed their admiration for America. It might also be true, as Spitzer argues, that the United States is the best exemplar of a free society the world has ever known. Yet the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose desperate act of self-immolation unleashed the latent yearnings of millions upon their governments, was not motivated by visions of American-style democracy. Nor have been the men and women in the “freedom squares,” who have braved beatings, teargas and live fire to register their grievances.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

Mubarak, One Week Later

Hosni Mubarak’s first week out of power has yielded few concrete indications whether the former Egyptian dictator will face justice, a question I explored last weekend on Huffington Post. The media though is rife with speculation that Mubarak has fallen gravely ill, and is perhaps even in a coma in his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. An anonymous Saudi official told Reuters, “He is not dead but is not doing well at all and refuses to leave. Basically, he has given up and wants to die in Sharm.” Egypt’s ambassador to the United States said on Tuesday that Mubarak is “possibly in somewhat of bad health” but didn’t elaborate any further. It’s unclear just how much stock to place in these reports, although news on Thursday that recently-ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma begs the question, what is it about losing political power that disposes former autocrats to immediate physical decay?

The situation is somewhat clearer on the financial front, where Swiss authorities have identified and frozen tens of millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts belonging to Mubarak, his family and a few close associates. The Swiss government had announced almost immediately after Mubarak’s ouster its intention to go after Mubarak’s assets. The United States and Europe have moved more slowly, though the Treasury Department on Thursday advised American banks to monitor the movement of funds by former Egyptian government officials, and European foreign ministers are set to discuss the matter in the coming days.

Curiously, the Egyptian military—now in control of the government—has requested that international governments freeze the assets of four former ministers but not of Mubarak himself or his family. Three of those officials have also been ordered detained by the state prosecutor on suspicion of corruption. Opposition activists are now voicing concerns that the military will protect Mubarak, a former military commander. Already, the military’s avowed commitment to a democratic transition has been called into question on account of its rapid steps to secure its privileged economic standing in post-Mubarak Egypt and its alleged role in disappearances and torture during—and after—the popular upheaval that led to Mubarak’s resignation. As the euphoria surrounding the initial success of the revolution dies down, the military’s action, or lack thereof, on Mubarak’s finances could prove an important signal to the Egyptian people of whether or not they can trust the military to usher in the new democratic era they so courageously fought for.

Will Mubarak Be Prosecuted?

This story originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

In the non-resignation heard ’round the world, Hosni Mubarak vowed on Thursday to Egypt’s “martyrs” to “hold accountable all the people who committed crimes against you, and with the utmost punishment and penalties.”

After the Egyptian leader’s departure from office on Friday, a larger question looms: who will hold Hosni Mubarak accountable for his 30 years atop one of the world’s most repressive regimes?

Potential answers are finally starting to crystallize. The subject garnered virtually no attention during the 18-day uprising, as Mubarak’s critics treaded carefully so long as he remained in office. Protesters overwhelmingly coalesced around a single demand: “Leave!” Opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei called for Mubarak’s “safe exit” from power, President Obama for a “graceful exit.” Human rights organizations kept their distance from any talk of legal action that might have spooked the defiant dictator into digging in even deeper.

Since his resignation, all that has started to change. The Swiss Federal Council moved immediately on Friday to freeze Mubarak family assets in the country’s banks. In Tahrir Square, cries of “We want the money,” reportedly broke out in reference to the estimated billions Mubarak has amassed during his reign. Meanwhile, an anonymous group of Egyptian activists has petitioned the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to open an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

Mubarak Tells Egyptians to Fuck Off

Might Hosni Mubarak have just handed the opposition movement the greatest gift it could have asked for? Word was all day that Mubarak would be stepping down and handing off power to Vice President Suleiman or the army. Instead, he delivered what amounted to a giant “fuck you” to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians crowded into Tahrir Square.  It remains to be seen what effect Mubarak’s remarks will have on the protests, but judging by the deafening cries of “Leave! Leave! Leave!” that filled the square after it became clear Mubarak wouldn’t be stepping down, the speech seems certain to further revitalize a movement whose momentum seemed to be waning earlier this week. A Mubarak resignation would have muddied the waters, likely dividing the opposition between those satisfied by Mubarak’s moderate concession and those inclined to view Suleiman as an unacceptable extension of the Mubarak reign. With this speech, though, Mubarak has surely united the protestors in fury. Last Friday’s “Day of Rage” failed to quite live up to its billing; tomorrow’s will not. Watch this space.

Why I’m Rooting for the Pack

To the romanticism of a small town, fan-owned team winning it all and the sheer impossibility of rooting for the thuggish Ben Rothelisberger, add this as one more reason I’ll be pulling for the Packers on Sunday. As Alan Schwarz notes today in the Times, this year’s two Super Bowl participants have taken very different approaches to the not-so-laughing matter of head injuries in football. The Steelers, ever the league’s tough guys, haven’t taken too kindly to the NFL’s efforts this year to introduce at least a modicum of safety to its brain damage-inducing product. Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who’s paid upwards of $125,000 in fines for illegal hits this season, ridiculed the league’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet contact a few days ago in a message for commissioner Roger Goodell: “I just want to tackle them softly on the ground and, if y’all can, we’ll lay a pillow down where I’m going to tackle them, so they don’t hit the ground too hard, Mr. Goodell.”

The Packers, on the other hand, seem to at least get that the prospect of irreparable brain damage should be treated with some degree of seriousness. After Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers suffered a concussion in a December game against the Lions, wide receiver Donald Driver urged his teammate to take it easy. “I went behind him and told him that this game is just a game,” Driver recalled saying. “Your life is more important than the game.” Asked whether he would ever dispense similar advice to his own quarterback, Rothelisberger, who has suffered multiple concussions, Steelers receiver Hines Ward replied, “For me, I’ve been in that situation. I wanted to be out there fighting. To each his own. Who am I to tell somebody what not to do?”

It was a reply befitting the emotional leader of the hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners crew from Pittsburgh, but the Steeler mentality is becoming increasingly untenable amid our growing understanding of football’s true neurological costs. A recent study found retired NFL players between 30 and 49 to be 19 times more likely than others in their age cohort to suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia or other memory-related disorders. Whether a few more Donald Drivers and a few fewer Hines Wards in the league is going to fix that, I’m not holding my breath, but if the men in green do come off the field Sunday holding the Lombardi trophy, I’ll gladly chalk it up as a victory, however small, for that all-too-precious commodity in our sporting culture of common sense.