Poverty, repression, resistance: Nigeria to Hungary

Romanian demonstrator: The world has mouths to feed

The first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution comes in ten days.   Cairo is suffering an inexplicable gas shortage: perhaps to turn the screws before the expected demonstrations, perhaps just a random thrombosis in a sclerotic economy up to one third of which may be in the greedy hands of  the generals who now run the country.

But you think the Egyptians have it bad? Yesterday, the world economy suffered another shock, with the credit ratings of nine European nations slashed and Greece pushed closer to default.

Even as austerity spreads and militarized police clamp down, though, resistance continues. Here are few scenes from around a still-rebellious world.

In Nigeria, nationwide strikes are due to resume tomorrow in protest against the removal of a key oil subsidy.

Tens of thousands took to the streets for strikes over five successive days last week in protest against the sudden removal of a fuel subsidy on Jan. 1 that more than doubled the pump price of petrol to 150 naira ($0.93) per litre from 65 naira.

“We are suffering,” shouted Paul Edem, after queueing for 12 hours to buy petrol at the new higher price in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. The only alternative to queueing is to buy at three times the new price from touts selling from jerry cans.

Socialist Worker adds:

For decades, the program has helped control the price of transportation and electricity in a country where two-thirds of the population–or about 104 million people–live on less than $1.25 per day. ..

The end of the fuel subsidy will increase the cost of nearly every aspect of life in Nigeria. Communal transport fares have already increased, and the price of food and other basic necessities is expected to soon rise, too. One Nigerian writer pointed out that a sachet of drinkable water, a product many Nigerians rely on, has already doubled in price where he lives.

The subsidy’s removal, absurd on the face of it in the world’s sixth largest oil producer, is part of a “privatization and austerity” plan promoted by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. The austerity plan’s essence is to reserve more Nigerian commodities for foreign markets.

During the past decade, both the Bush and Obama administrations have funded and supported the increasing militarization of Nigeria. American companies and the U.S. government have a massive stake in Nigeria–44 percent of the oil extracted from the country goes to the U.S.. The U.S. imports more oil from Africa than from the Middle East, and Nigeria alone supplies 8 percent of the crude oil imported into the U.S.

And the combined result of export dependence and militarization is murder:

In multiple Nigerian cities, security forces responded to the protests with violence. In Kano, police shot more than a dozen people on Monday. At least three protesters in Kano and Lagos died from either gunshot wounds or tear gas on the first day of the strike, prompting unions to call off public demonstrations in Kano on Tuesday, while maintaining the strike call.

Bucharest protester: "Down with Băsescu's dictatorship"Romania saw its fourth day of violent protests against government austerity plans, with 1000 demonstrators clashing with police and blocking a boulevard. They started Thursday, after a health ministry official resigned to protest government cutbacks in health care. President Traian Băsescu retracted the cuts the following day, but the rage only mounted. The protests, says the AP,

are the result of frustration against public wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes, cronyism in state institutions and widespread corruption.

Protesters yelled “The Mafioso government stole everything we had!” and “Get out you miserable dog!” — a popular expression of contempt used to refer to Băsescu. Protesters roamed through the center of the capital, and Mayor Sorin Oprescu called on them to refrain from acts of violence. Antena 3 TV reported that shops in the vicinity of the protest were vandalized.

“We are here to protest, we cannot face it any more, we have no money to survive, our pensions are so small, the expenses are more than we can afford. It’s no way to live,” said a protester who would only identify himself as Sorin. Thirteen people needed medical treatment, said Bogdan Opriţa, who heads emergency services in Bucharest.

Saudi Arabia has seen a revival of protest in the perennially disadvantaged and policed Eastern Province — where a large population of disenfranchised Shi’a sit atop the kingdom’s oil. Open Democracy says,

While western powers have been happy to use Saudi Arabia as an ally to ratchet up the pressure on Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, [they have] not caught a whiff of the silent crackdown occurring within the kingdom. …

Today, while attention was focused on the Strait of Hormuz, on Syria, and on the rising tensions in Bahrain, Saudi security forces launched an assault on the city of Awamiyah killing at least one and wounding half a dozen more. Eye witnesses have stated that soldiers on trucks opened fire on demonstrators, hitting many as they fled. The attack bears all the hallmarks of a planned operation with electricity being cut to the area prior to the assault. The area at the time of writing is apparently still under military lock-down and reflects a state of siege with clashes continuing to occur and gunfire being heard.

This attack was almost certainly condoned by the royal family and comes on the heels of a series of indictments against demonstrators and high profile invectives against the protest movement. Despite this attack and others like it, the rumblings and tremors of protest and crackdown show no sign of abatement. Indeed in the past few months they have once again reared their head in the south west in Najran and Jazan, compounded with protests over women’s rights in Riyadh and Buraydah.

But the resistance to the resistance, the defense of the awfulness of things as they are, is immensely powerful. There is one excellent, dangerously exemplary instance of counter-revolutionary success. Hungary’s ruling party, the ever more far-right and more authoritarian Fidesz, steadily manipulates chauvinism and racism to keep a critical mass of its public distracted from a struggling economy.

He paid youths to attend his speech and clap. He championed laws to silence critical journalists. He rammed through a constitution aimed at remaking Hungary on conservative Christian values. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who made his name protesting Hungary’s communist dictatorship, is now confronting protesters chanting “Viktator!’’

I can barely stomach Bernard-Henri Lévy — every time someone calls him a “philosopher,” Socrates’ mouldering bones must grope for more hemlock — but he writes about Orbán’s loathing of democracy in terms that, for once, seem hardly overblown:

Among its nations, Europe is banishing Greece for failing — it’s true, big time — to fulfill the rules of good economic and financial governance. …

Well, today there exists in the heart of Europe a country whose government gags the media, is dismantling the health and social protection systems, challenges rights once considered acquired, such as that to an abortion, and criminalizes the poor.

There is a country that has revived the most obtuse chauvinism, the most worn-out populism, and the hatred of Tsiganes [sic] and Jews, transforming the latter in an increasingly open manner into scapegoats for any and all misfortune, much as they were in the darkest hours of the history of the continent.

Lévy  concludes, ominously:

In the Internet age, under the new regime where, for better or for worse, “social network” politics reign supreme, in this hour in which everyone communicates with everyone and where a Marine Le Pen can be linked, by a taut thread, to an extremist leader in Thuringia, Flanders, Northern Italy or, thus, to a Viktor Orban, it is not inconceivable that an increasing number of individuals in Europe perceive in this Hungarian laboratory the actualization of their less and less secret plan: undo Europe, get rid of it and, at the same time, get rid of a corset of democratic rules judged, as during the 1930s, unsuitable in times of crisis.

The junta re-invades Tahrir

Protesters taking down a Central Security Forces vehicle in Tahrir (from @JonathanRashad)

Days before parliamentary elections, a pitched battle is going on in and around Midan Tahrir in Cairo right now, with police using tear gas and violence to drive out protesters trying to stage a sit-in against the miitary junta. From the AP report:

Earlier in the day, riot police beat protesters and dismantled a small tent city set up to commemorate revolutionary martyrs.

The clashes occurred after activists camped in the central square overnight following a massive Friday rally. The military tolerates daytime demonstrations in the central square, a symbol of the country’s Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising, but claims that long-term occupation paralyzes the city.

Friday’s rally was dominated by Islamists, but the sit-in appeared to be staged mostly by members of left- and liberal-leaning revolutionary youth groups.

The number of protesters swelled to nearly 600 people as news of the scuffles spread in the city, and thousands more riot police streamed into Tahrir Square blocking off the entrances and clashing with protesters.

Police were seen beating activists who challenged them and an Associated Press cameraman saw police arrest three people who refused to leave.

As they say in Egypt: Fuck SCAF.

Livestream from Occupy Wall Street …

… is available at the Nation, here, or at livestream.com/globalrevolution, here. I just heard a report that, despite promises to the protesters that they’d be allowed back in after the park is “cleaned,” a policeman said, “The occupation ends here.”

Occupy Wall Street under occupation

Hundreds of police entered Zuccotti Park in New York around 1 AM and began clearing out Occupy Wall Street protesters, claiming the area would be “cleaned and restored” before anyone would be allowed back in. The NY Times says:

The protesters, about 200 of whom have been staying in the park overnight, resisted with chants of “Whose park? Our park!” as officers began moving in and tearing down tents. The protesters rallied around an area known as the kitchen, near the middle of the park and began building barricades with tables and pieces of scrap wood.

Over the next two hours, dozens of protesters left the park, while a core group of about 100 dug in around the food area. Many locked arms and defied police orders to leave. By 3 a.m., dozens of helmet-clad officers, watched over by Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, closed in on the remaining protesters. They pulled them out one protester at a time and handcuffed them. Most were walked out without incident. The officers had gathered between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges earlier and rode in vans to the one-square-block park. They entered shortly about 1 a.m.

As they did, dozens of protesters linked arms and shouted “No retreat, no surrender,” “This is our home” and “Barricade!” A number of other arrests were reported just outside the park, but details were not immediately available.

The mayor’s office sent out a message on Twitter at 1:19 a.m. saying: “Occupants of Zuccotti should temporarily leave and remove tents and tarps. Protesters can return after the park is cleared.” Fliers handed out by the police at the private park on behalf of the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, and the city, spelled out the same message.

And this sounds like a motive:

The police move came as organizers put out word on their Web site that they planned to “shut down Wall Street” with a demonstration on Thursday to commemorate the completion of two months of the beginning of the encampment, which has spurred similar demonstrations across the country.

Wall Street under occupation: anarchism and the alternatives to power

I like anarchists. I always have. Victor Serge is one of my heroes.  (Go read his memoirs, one of the great books of the last century.) And almost everywhere I’ve seen a struggle for human rights — in Budapest, Moscow, Cairo — the anarchists are the ones who keep the faith, who are willing to go on the streets and march for the causes that are unpopular and despised. They’ll stand up, sit in, and get arrested for the issues none of the respectable human rights activists would want to be associated with.   I might trust the fellow with the business card and the Hugo Boss suit to argue for me in court. But it’s the guy in the ragged black T-shirt with the swirling tattoos, clutching his copy of Alexander Berkman, I’d want standing with me when the riot police charge.

My doubts — and this has to do both with Occupy Wall Street, and with the huge but evanescent victories of Midan Tahrir — are about where the project leads. We are seeing an era of what some pundits call “postmodern” revolutions, which don’t aim to seize the levers of state power but to create alternative spaces where a different kind of politics can be generated or imagined.  Changing the government was so 1789, or 1989. This is the age of Lennon, not Lenin. (OK, of Radiohead, but you get the idea.) That was what almost everybody who was in Tahrir seems to remember ecstatically about the experience: the sense they had created a model society radically unlike the one outside, a different kind of community, an embodied challenge to the divide-and-conquer hierarchies of the old state. (Of course, the revolution overthrew the dictator. But the protesters in Tahrir, refraining from violence, also refrained from claiming power for themselves. The result was that when the apparatus of rule slipped from Mubarak’s hands, not the popular movement but the military stepped in to claim it.  The history of the coming years will show whether this was a beautiful affirmation of the revolution’s purity of spirit, or a missed opportunity and an abnegation.) The ensuing months have not depleted that dream, but they’ve shown that only a few rubber bullets are needed to sweep the alternative space away.

The aspiration not to capture power, but to find another way of living altogether beyond its insidious dominion, is not particularly postmodern at all. Its roots are in the old anarchist tradition and its deep skepticism of all authority, its awareness of how dissent can mimic the domination it opposes.  But without power, how can you change anything — instead of just cultivating a private garden that will get bulldozed whenever the powers-that-be assert their eminent domain?  Without power, how can you even hope to safeguard and preserve the changes you’ve accomplished in your own life and self?

The NY Times recently published an article on young activists who reject the idea that voting changes things. As always, the Times is palpably unnerved by people whose demands would be difficult to fit in an editorial.

[F]rom South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over. They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

The vague, anarchism-inflected ideas of participatory democracy that drive the spreading protests of 2011 seem to give the Times the willies. Voting behind drawn curtains is quieter and doesn’t break things.

I don’t agree. Making democracy more participatory, against its current colonization by mass media and corporate money, is vital.  And participation starts with the local and immediate, with needs and not abstractions, neighbors and not anonymous citizens. But it’s still the state that has final deciding power over who profits and who loses, who gets ahead and who gets screwed; in some cases, who belongs or who doesn’t, or who lives and who dies.   Really to change things surely means wresting that power away from the amoral entities controlling it now.

A participatory democracy in Midan Tahrir or Dewey Square may be an ideal or model, but it will take more than mere mimesis to make the rest of the world resemble it.  It’s very possible that, out of these inchoate protests, a new kind of politics is being born. But these are the hard questions it needs to ask itself if it’s going to grow, and succeed.