Jan 31, 2011

Day Six, and the people still control the streets

The protests and demonstrations in Egypt have stretched to last almost a week, with neither the disgruntled populace nor the entrenched dictator Hosni Mubarak willing to budge. Nobel Laureate Mohammad ElBaradei publically addressed protesters today and requested Egypt's president of 30 years to step down. It is unclear whether this crisis is close to being over one way or another.

But this amazing video did come out of Egypt today of protesters praying in the streets.

There are also reports of protesters in Tahrir square cleaning up after themselves and sharing packets of bread as they stood together today.

In the meantime, Al Jazeera official had its Egyptian press credentials revoked and its offices locked down today, severely limiting information and coverage of the crisis there.

If you still don't believe this is a crisis, then brace yourselves for this tidbit: Anderson Cooper has flown into Egypt. I don't know about you, but if I EVER see Anderson Cooper or Jim Cantore in my neighborhood, I'm leaving as fast as I can.

Jan 28, 2011

Another Egypt Protest Photo - the kiss

Via Lefteris Pitarakis of the AP, an Egyptian protester kisses a riot police officer on Friday.

Gandhi and MLK Jr would be proud

Egypt Erupts

By far the biggest news of the day is the situation in Egypt which is one of massive civil unrest with relatively little violence. Though 10s of thousands are protesting the government of Hosni Mubarak, media reports 857 wounded and 3 dead there among the protesters.

This is not a civil war - it is a revolution. Whether the Egyptian government has the power to quash these revolutions is unclear. Tweets on #Egypt and #Jan25 suggest that many of the riot police and military personnel sent out to stop the protesters have taken off their uniforms. Make no mistake, Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for three decades and has effectively distinguished all opposition in the past. Acts of violence have happened and continue to happen.

The protesters have broken through several attempts to blockade them away to public squares. Government buildings have been set ablaze. All of this information has leaked out of an Egypt that has been largely cut-off from the outside world. Access to social networks was lost overnight in Egypt and then the population there found that most of their internet and mobile phone access had been severed by the government.

Today, the Egyptian government has imposed a curfew on the Egyptian people that has been universally disobeyed by the protesters. The government announced that president Mubarak would make a statement to the country in the evening, but so far he has not appeared or made any statement.

The question on my mind is what the US government will do about it - do they stand by the first Arab nation to recognize and make peace with Israel, a key ally who has received billions of dollars of US aid, or do they stand by the pro-democratic protesters against an admittedly authoritarian dictatorship?

Does the Obama Administration make the decision based on foreign policy concerns or our political ideals? So far their only statements have been lukewarm at best.

The best places to monitor information coming across about Egypt are on Twitter (#Egypt #Jan25) and Al Jazeera English.

A Late Night Egypt Update

Protests continue in Egypt against the government of Hosni Mubarak, a key ally of the United States and the dictatorial leader of the largest Arab country by population.

Here's some footage of a protest in Egypt and a 'Tiananmen Square' there.

It seems that today at least some Christians in Egypt have sworn to protect Muslim protesters there. Noon prayers happen in a little more than 3 hours, evening prayers less than 10. It will be interesting to see if this pans our given the heightened tensions between Egyptian Copts and the Muslim majority there over the past year.

There has beena major disruption in all internet and mobile phone access in the country, and there are tweets reporting the government setting up medieval-style fire-trap in public gathering areas. I know that they are just Twitter rumors, but when combined with the communication disruptions, I fear for my friends in Egypt right now. I am following #Egypt loyally right now.

Jan 26, 2011

Division in America, Unrest in Egypt

First, in Egypt historic pro-democracy protests erupted yesterday only to be quashed today. It is unclear whether the popular discontent with the dictatorial government of Hosni Mubarak and a floundering economy will carry over into future protests, but many analysts tie this unrest in with the revolt in Tunisia. An amateur photographer took this spectacular shot of a protester in Cairo.

UPDATE: It appears that the protests continue despite the government crackdown.

After a State of the Union address that seemed like an olive branch last night, the pundits are alternately praising and damning President Obama. There was a lot in the speech that angered liberals - no line on gun control after the violent rampage in Tuscon. No talk about climate change, even though the speech was focused on 'Winning the Future'. Finally, Obama seems to be co-opting GOP deficit language, especially his freeze on spending.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are split between those who don't believe Obama's talk on getting serious about deficits and those who don't think his spending freeze goes far enough. Despite the fact that the president seems serious about streamlining the federal government and focusing federal spending on innovation and investment for future technology, jobs and infrastructure, many conservatives insist that these roles lie outside of the federal government's mandate.

In the end, this speech was aimed at independents in the country, who seemed to react favorably to the president last night. This is the triangulation I was talking about yesterday.

For 61 minutes of the president's speech, we all got along - there was bipartisan applause and no repeat of the Joe Williams (R-SC) "You Lie!" interjection.

Jan 25, 2011

Update: SOTU to push infrastructure

The good folks at The Infrastructurist have the scoop that Obama will push infrastructure spending in the State of the Union address (reframing the issue as infrastructure investment) and will link infrastructure upgrades and maintenance to economic competitiveness.

Think it's cold now? Get ready for the freeze.

Previews of tonight's State of the Union address have turned up evidence that President Barack Obama will propose to freeze the national budget at current levels, with exceptions for defense and security spending.

It should come as no surprise that there are already some Republicans who object to this proposal. Following the will of the Tea Party, who share some credit for GOP success in the 2010 elections, many Republicans are already calling for deep spending cuts, even in job-creating sectors like clean energy and infrastructure. Many organizations have been quick to point out that these cuts will hurt education, veterans, scientific research, cities and states.

On the surface this sounds like a sound political gambit. Obama is pulling a card from the Clinton deck - triangulation between the wishes of his base for an active and progressive government and the ambitions of his opposition to shrink government to the point where all of its functions can be devolved to the private sector.

It is a good compromise, in my opinion. Budget cuts may cost a fragile recovery the few jobs it has successfully created. However, it is a dangerous game to freeze spending. There is a need for government sponsored growth in some areas, while cuts would be more welcome in defense and security spending where the Bush-era Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration represent the greatest extension of federal and executive power in the history of the United States.

The two wars that Obama inherited also take up billions of our tax dollars every year, more than enough to build a high speed rail system and/or provide a single payer health care system with equal benefits to the vast majority of American workers. Furthermore, despite the best efforts of Donald Rumsfeld to streamline our military, Obama also inherits armed forces still deployed throughout the world in a manner more befitting a cold war that ended 27 years ago. Perhaps the best way to save the American people some money and trim the federal budget would be to cut defense spending first.

Obama is making a smart move. He seemingly appeases the desires of his opposition without breaking another promise to his electorate. My personal belief is that his recent bump in polls will give him an opportunity to be more aggressive in his speech tonight than the GOP expects, setting up an interesting battle between the two parties as the 2012 election season looms on the horizon.

Jan 24, 2011

Three Stories You Have To Follow Today

The big news today is the Moscow explosion that as of 1 PM killed 35 and left 130 wounded in Domodedovo airport. Russian authorities are now calling the attack a terrorist suicide bombing, but it is still unclear who exactly is responsible.

Also looming is President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday evening where the President is expected to call for vigorous federal activity to encourage businesses to hire workers while calling for more bipartisanship and conciliatory rhetoric.

Finally, thousands of leaked documents on the middle east peace process have been released by al Jazeera at a time when tensions and uncertainty in the region are coming to a climax. Among the surprises in the documents are sizable concessions on the part of the Palestinian Authority that offer Israel control over most of East Jerusalem, a move that should alienate the Palestinian government from its consituency.

Jan 22, 2011

A note to the 112th US Congress

If you have read my blogs, you probably know that I didn't vote for the party that is currently in charge of the US House of Representatives. I can, however, respect that the people who voted them in power did so for good reasons. They weren't happy with the direction of the country and wanted to see government do more about unemployment, the budget deficit and political gridlock in Washington.

I don't think that the voters responsible for the power-shift wanted to see Congress move on issues like repealing environmental regulation, illegalizing abortion sweetheart deals for the energy lobby.

Instead, they probably wanted to see something more like this:

Jan 20, 2011

Bipartisanship At Last: Civility Thrown Aside

After the tragedy in Tuscon many on both sides of the political aisle wanted our politicians and pundits to tone down their language. Well, so much for that idea:

Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tenn) launched an attack against House Republicans earlier this week during the debate on the repeal of the health care reform, likening their dishonesty on the issue to 'Nazi-era propaganda'. Now he drags the debate farther towards the childish flamewar level by comparing the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan.

Let me be clear - I think that this debate is full of hyperbole and misdirection on both sides, and the GOP's framing of health care reform as a 'government takeover' and a 'job-killer' is clearly dishonest. However, likening Republican lawmakers to Nazis and their followers to Klansmen is the worst kind of vitriol and should not be tolerated by the American electorate - and it needlessly gives ammunition to the bloodthirsty punditry.

Jan 19, 2011

Burning Passion

It seems the revolution in Tunisia that ousted a long-standing government all started with a 26-year-old who burned himself to death in protest.

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Friday, 12/17 to protest what he saw as government corruption and rampant unemployment. Bouazizi reportedly had a degree in computer science, but operated a fruit stand on the streets of Tunis. His cart was regularly upturned and confiscated by Tunisian authorities who claimed that operating such a cart was illegal.

Out of frustration, Bouazizi set himself alight, and later died on January 4th. His death not only started protests that led to the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but also spurned a rash of copy-cat self-immolations in other countries in the maghreb like Algeria and Egypt.

A CNN article points out that such extreme acts of protest have happened in the past, most notably the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam, but self-immolation also happens in places like Afghanistan where desperate women burn themselves in self-punishment rather than face the torment of strict religious laws.

I can't imagine setting myself on fire out of protest or desperation, the pain of flames consuming my flesh just because I objected to a political or economic situation. I wonder whether there is another underlying condition, whether cultural or medical, that leads to this kind of protest.

Jan 14, 2011

WikiLeaks is your friend.

Thank goodness for WikiLeaks. Though their front-man is facing sexual assault charges and they have become a thorn in the side of the wold diplomatic community, WikiLeaks is hands-down the best thing to happen to our democracy since women's suffrage.

The site, an international non-profit organization that disseminates classified information from anonymous sources, is just one more part of the new wave of journalism surging forward in social media and digital communication. There are millions of documents on WikiLeaks that otherwise would not be available to the public eye.

In essence, WikiLeaks throws open some of the doors that our governments operate behind.

Though governments complain that they require a level of confidentiality for diplomatic reasons, we have to understand that in the new digital world, they have no choice but to be more transparent both to each other and to their constituents. There is little legal recourse against WikiLeaks and their activities, and that is only right. Speech and press should be free world-wide.

While some big media sources (the MSNBCs and FOXs of the world) are afraid of what Wikileaks could mean for the future of journalism, as a journalist myself I think it is a tool to be embraced. Yes, anyone with access to the internet could go to WikiLeaks and acquire the information for themselves, but they will still turn to big media to analyze and parse the information into a format that is easier to acquire. The average media consumer will not want to spend their time sifting through the millions of documents on WikiLeaks.

An active and independent press is necessary for Democracy to function. WikiLeaks contributes to the activity and independence of the media, itself being an independent non-profit website and organization. Therefore, the site itself aids democracy. We journalists should be rallying around WikiLeaks and the freedoms its existence represents.

We may be seeing the first WikiLeaks revolution in Tunisia as I write this entry.

WikiLeaks as it stands is a treasure-trove of news stories. If it continues to get sources it will be an invaluable boon to journalists.

Perhaps even more interesting than the government intrigues uncovered by the site will be the forthcoming corporate communiques and secrets that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has referred to.

Jan 13, 2011

Why I'm worried about Lebanon - but not that worried

I love Lebanon. Love it. There are few cities I have enjoyed more than Beirut, and few vistas as breathtaking as looking over the Bekaa Valley from the top of Mount Lebanon. It should come as no surprise, then, that my heart sank into my stomach when news of the Lebanese government's collapse came over the airwaves.

For those who are uninformed, 10 representatives left Lebanon's ruling coaltion, forcing an election and reorganization in a country whose latest government was cobbled together with international assistance. They left after the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, refused to stop an inquiry into the assassination of his popular brother in 2005. It was originally thought that Syria was involved in the assassination, leading to the Cedar Revolution that saw the Syrian military withdraw from Lebanese territory.

All of the members who withdrew from the government are associated with Hezbollah - in a series of speeches last summer Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah condemned the inquiry, and it is thought that the inquiry will implicate members of Hezbollah in the assassination.

There is indeed great reason for concern; Lebanon is only 20 years removed from one of the most intense and extensive civil conflicts the world has ever known. Lebanon is also one of the linchpins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with both sides fighting through proxies in the small Levantine nation.

However, some commentators are taking their fearmongering to ridiculous levels, predicting a civil war or a war with Israel immediately. Their fears are largely unfounded. The collapse of the Hariri government would only be the first step to larger conflict. Though the behavior of external actors isn't helping matters, the Lebanese are still a long way from reorganizing into militias and walling themselves up in sectarian enclaves. Cooler heads will likely prevail.

For one thing, the members who withdrew from the government were all Hezbollah members. The western assumption is that all the Muslims in Lebanon support Hezbollah, but I can say from personal experience that it is not the case. The vast majority of Lebanese, Christian, Muslim and others support the militia's struggle against Israel, framing it as a national struggle against an invasive force. They do not support Hezbollah's politics. I would predict that Mr. Nasrallah has overestimated his influence and will lose this battle against Lebanon's growing civil society. When the Special Tribunal releases its indictments, and if it implicates Hezbollah, I doubt that the majority of Lebanese will support those responsible for the assassination of their beloved Rafic Hariri. They just want to work and live out their lives without senseless conflict and bloodshed, and if they are left to themselves by the likes of Israel, Iran and Syria, they might jsut get that chance.

It should come as no surprise that most of the people predicting doom and gloom in Lebanon are conservative - they have a vested religious and geopolitical interest in sewing the seeds of conflict in the Middle East. What else explains their posturing against peace in the Arab Israeli conflict? It would also come as no surprise if they ended up being wrong - as they have been wrong time and again when it comes to Arab affairs.

Here's someone who has it right.

Ted Williams and Homelessness

The recent media darling, supplanting the likes of Susan Boyle, is Ted Williams, the "homeless man with the golden voice." Williams was an unemployed disc jockey found pan-handling on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. A good samaritan heard the fellow and returned with a video camera, made a recording of Williams' voice, and posted it to YouTube for the world to see. The video went viral and soon opportunities and job offers started to come in for Mr. Williams.

The media went wild for this story - because touching, feel good stories of success snatched from the jaws of despair usually garner the attention of an American public desensitized by stories of violence and a bad economy. We need these stories to temper the 24-hour news cycle.

When a private life is suddenly thrust into the public eye, there are a few halcyon days where the story appears perfect before the realities of the human being the media is fawning over come to light, and that is now happening with Mr. Williams. After a touching reunion with his 90-year-old mother was made over the weekend, reports of a domestic altercation between Williams and his daughter broke Monday evening. It turns out that Mr. Williams is struggling with alcoholism and is a former crackhead.

This brings me to my point - few people are homeless by choice, and even fewer are homeless because they are out of options. The support systems and safety-nets in this country are actually very good. Our cities abound with government programs, private charities and individual good samaritans who are more than willing to help people who are down on their luck.

The unfortunate truth is that most homeless people are struggling with mental illness and addiction. This is the very reason that many of them do not seek out the assistance that is available to them, assistance that perhaps could have prevented their homelessness. That doesn't mean they are any less-worthy of our attention and help, but it does mean that the media should not be so quick to vault them into a public spotlight that might also illuminate a darker side to their story.

Jan 12, 2011

Things to Take from Tuscon

Before I say anything else, let me be explicit: what happened in Tuscon, Arizona over the weekend was a tragedy. Six people lost their lives for no reason whatsoever. As more information about the shooting and the would-be assassin comes to light, it becomes clear that this was not an issue of politics, but an issue of mental illness.

In fact, as one studies Jared Loughner, his past and his rants one thing becomes clear about his politics - they mirror the schizophrenia of the American system, where we want government safety nets and services to care for the most vulnerable among us, but we also want personal freedom to act and make decisions for ourselves.

Despite an unhealthy catalogue of anti-government rants that echo some of the criticisms of government programs coming from the American right, Loughner for some reason lists the Communist Manifesto among his favorite pieces of literature.

Though many of us politically passionate Americans sifted through the facts of the case looking for something, anything to pin the shooter up to one party or another - many liberals were convinced that Loughner was a Tea Party activist, while many conservatives tried to prop him up as an ultra-leftist due to the appearance of Marx and Engel's manifesto on his reading list.

As it turns out, there should be a lot of red faces on both sides of the political aisle today.

No, Loughner should be thought of as neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican - he is insane and that is the end of it.

We can, however, gain some positive from this unspeakable tragedy by coming together as a nation should during such times, and working to rid our political dialgogue of the angry rhetoric that comes from individuals like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck. These voices and their words of hate have no place in civil society.