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FOR THOSE TIMES WHEN "DURKA DURKA MOHAMMAD JIHAD" JUST WON'T CUT IT

 

Friday
Feb172012

RIP Anthony Shadid

It was with much sadness that Londonstani learnt this morning that foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid passed away during a reporting assignment covering the Syrian uprising.

Londonstani had the good fortune to meet Anthony on several occasions and he was always generous with his time and his advice. In a profession that has earned a reputation of attracting the vain, maladjusted and slightly unhinged, Anthony stood out as a professional driven by a genuinely altruistic desire to tell the stories of the voiceless.

Reporting in war zones all too often focuses on those doing the fighting, Anthony told the stories of those caught in the middle. And in the grand scheme of things, it's what they think that will decide how things eventually turn out.

George Packer at the New Yorker says this about Anthony:

"Anthony knows that terrain better than any foreigner. Is Tripoli about to fall? Shadid will get inside as soon as he can. Is Cairo having another revolution? He’s there and knows how to explain why it’s happening. If anyone can get into Homs, it’ll be Anthony. He combined professional excellence with quiet indefatigability, so that you only noticed it when he wasn’t on the scene. He was the Cal Ripken of foreign correspondents."

Tuesday
Feb142012

Normal posting will resume after..... Ozombie

Londonstani is in the middle of moving again. So, while you wait for normal blogging to resume til after he arrives back later this week, check out Ozombie.

You know you want to:

(thanks to the film finding genius that is Chris Allbritton for that one)

Tuesday
Feb072012

Aid and the US-Egyptian psycho drama

Steven A Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations says it's time to cut aid to Egypt.

"I say we oblige [Egyptian Minister] Aboul Naga and wind down the aid program—including military assistance—as soon as practical."

Londonstani finds himself in agreement with Steven, but not exactly for the same reasons - well not this one anyway:

"It’s hard to run against the “foreign hand” if there is no foreign hand."

Whereas Steven might have gone too far in thinking local perceptions of US influence follow a simple linear logic, he doesn't go far enough in his labelling of US-Egyptian relations as a "psycho-drama".

It's way worse than that. It's more of a zombie horror movie - before the days zombies became funny.

At the crux of the aid issue is a dilapidated, clapped out, Egyptian self image manufactured a long time ago by leaders who saw the Soviet Union as an exemplary model of social control. This self image has taken a serious battering in the modern information age. 

As Londonstani remembers it, before about 2000, the Egyptian state wasn't too keen to talk about the aid it got from the US for two reasons: 1 - It wanted to avoid discussion around it's core reason for moving rfrom the Soviet to the US camp (its economy was a shambles and it needed help). 2 - The aid issue got in the way of the state's defence of its ideological frontiers. 

Londonstani would go as far as to say that existence of the aid was not common knowledge to most Egyptians. The reason why he'd go out on a limb with that last statement, is because US aid to Egypt was one of the first stories he covered as a journalist in Cairo. Thomas Friedman had published a mock letter from Bill Clinton to Mubarak asking, rhetorically, what the US got for its money. That evening, Londonstani did a bit of polling in the local coffeeshops and found that not one person could tell him how much aid Egypt got or when it started flowing. Most were openly surprised.

That changed. Over the next five years, as opposition to Mubarak grew more vocal, US news organisations mentioned the aid more frequently, and US officials became more comfortable with flinging around threats to cut it off. The end result was that many more Egyptians came to hear about the aid.

Mubarak's response was to carry on like before. The sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was first arrested in 2000 for accepting foreign funds without permission, was dragged through the courts for nearly a decade in a case that drew local and international attention. A number of other democracy activists were prosecuted for similar offences.

The US, which was never popular in the Arab world past about 1967, was on an unpopularity high in the run up to 9/11 due to Israel's reaction to the the Palestinian uprising and continuing sanctions against Iraq. Then of course came the invasion of Iraq. As bad became worse, the Egyptian state capitalised on the US's public image misfortunes by insinuating (or outright stating) that all sorts of domestic irritants (from dodgy businessmen, to partying homosexuals to blaspheming false prophets) were part of a foreign (ie Western) plot to destabilse Egypt.

But the reason why Londonstani doesnt agree with Steven that taking away the foreign hand will end the cries of conspiracy is based on the reason why the Egyptian state thought it was such a great play to begin with; people want to believe it.

The military men who run Egypt realised a long time ago that conspiracy theories made people feel important. It made them feel that they were worth being conspired against. As someone clever once said, "There's nothing worse than being ignored".

Egypt's slow fall from prominence under a regime that came to power on the promise of restoring pride was easier to hide because it was too painful to accept.

Apart from that Londonstani is totally in agreement with Steven.

Tuesday
Feb072012

Pakistan and its (friendly) networks

 

Talking about networks, Londonstani had the pleasure of coming across two initiatives recently, both seeking to tap into the concern and goodwill of British Pakistanis to help Pakistan develop into a stable and prosperous country.

The British Pakistan Foundation seeks to harness the funds British Pakistanis send to family and friends to  spur economic development. While the Samosa blog is a forum for debate and a foundation for action.

Both organisations draw on the resources, contacts and knowledge of British Pakistan - a potentially very powerful force for positive change in Pakistan.

Samosa director Anwar Akhtar has an article in the Royal Society of Arts magazine laying out the relationship between Britain, Pakistan and the community of British Pakistanis that, along with a shared history, tie the two countries together. In the article, Anwar makes a point that encapsulates the "potential" part of Londonstani's earlier comment.

"What, if any, are the responsibilities of diaspora communities such as the one to which I belong? Many British Pakistanis have expressed their disgust at the treatment of minority communities, and the misogyny and sectarianism of far-right organisations that use religion to spread hate and prejudice in Pakistan. There was despair at the inability of the Pakistani military to see beyond a cold-war obsession with India, an addiction, of course, that their peers in Delhi share."

Helping Pakistan involves engaging with issues at its ideological core. This is not something that can be accomplished with aid money alone.

Thursday
Feb022012

Anne-Marie Slaughter and a new approach to foreign policy

Since 2009, Londonstani has been working on developing and applying communications strategies in the UK and abroad. While most of his time is spent on the nitty gritty of making things happen in places like Pakistan, Londonstani is also very interested in the theory behind the practice.

However, there doesn't seem to be much out there about building, maintaining and leveraging influence in a rapidly changing world. What thinking and discussion does exist on this tends to be American. Which isn't  surprising in light of the events of the past 10 years. But consider the UK for a moment. Britain has the advantage (and liability) of historical connections and associations, the English language - which ties together entertainment and information (BBC, Reuters). Add to this a relatively large global investment footprint as well as a domestic culture that is globally connected. Also, there are a number of UK thinkers and practioners who operate in this area; very competent people like Robin Brown (@rcmb), Aaron Ellis (@thinkstrat) and Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s). Last but not least, the UK has been trading on its soft power for several decades, and is quite good at it.

The aim of this blog is to collate and, where possible, add to discussions about developing realistic, successful policies and methods in the new global environment. It's in that vein that Londonstani thought readers, particularly British ones, might be interested in a recent discussion between high-profile US figures on exactly these issues. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote an article back in July titled The New Foreign Policy Frontier. In it she argued that diplomacy is no longer just government-to-government, but also government-to-society and society-to-society. This new dynamic (or dynamics), she points out, opens up the potential for groups or individuals, not necessarily connected to a government, to undertake actions that affect countries in a way previously only governments could.

Equally clever person Dan Drezner (@dandrezner), professor of international relations at Tufts, took Anne-Marie to task over the point that micro-level, non-governmental initiatives - networked or not - had questionable impact on the general scheme of things. And that what networked interaction there was, had been there for a long time anyway.

Leaving the details of the discussion aside, the central point - are we moving from an era of the big men of state to one where "regular" people impact international relations - is one that Londonstani has had on-and-off with journalist and diplomat friends since 2003.

Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks are often cited as the ultimate example of a game-changer enacted by a small group of people without government ties. But the reason Londonstani started thinking about this in 2003 is because that was when he, as a young reporter, noticed that the dynamics of how people in the Middle East see themselves and the world had fundamentally changed. 

As the US geared up for war against Saddam many US-allied Arab nations had tacitly fallen in behind the US, but continued to express public opposition to the impeding war. Egypt under Mubarak was a tightly controlled information environment. State media organisations reinforced for Egyptians a worldview of their leader as an Arab champion and their country as a bulwark against US designs in the region. These were messages that had first been inculcated at school by the government education system.

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel made plain that the collective deception would not hold. In early 2003, US warships started passing through the Suez Canal, and al Jazeera set a camera up on the banks of the international waterway. As state television showed Mubarak fulminating about Arab solidarity, the highly popular news channel showed US warships passing through Egyptian territory on the way to invade Iraq. At about the same time, Egypt was showing triumphant military marches on state television during its annual war commemoration. Predictably, the contrast between bluster and compliance brought out demonstrators on to the streets asking, "Where is the Egyptian army".

This isn't to say that new media technology changed the way the world works. It's just a new way of disseminating information. And information has been the key to social and political change for a long time. In fact, Egypt has seen it all before. During British rule in Egypt the likes of Ahmed Lutfi el Sayed were distributing leaflets calling for revolution. In the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeni was using taped speeches to build support and turn people away from the shah. As today, technology was making it possible for people to connect with each other and unite around a common cause. 

It seems to Londonstani that this discussion should be less about the world changing and more about changing the methods of those who try and deal with it. Anne-Marie seems, in essence, to be arguing that it's no longer possible (for whatever reason) to do deals with important men in foreign places and expect them to enforce your agreement on their own people. Londonstani would argue that approach never actually worked. If you take the long view of history, Western powers' dealings with Iranian shahs in the era of capitulations had an influence on the evolution that led to relationship the West and Iran have today. In more recent times, Israel and the West's dealing with the autocratic and corrupt PLO leadership has been a factor in the support Hamas can command.

What has changed is powerful peoples' ability to manipulate emotions in order to maintain their privileged positions. The tools they used grew accustomed to using don't work anymore.

So, the question is if you do decide that government-to-society or society-to-society connections provide the more stable relationships, what tools can you use, and how do you use them?

 

UPDATE: Anne-Marie responded to this post via twitter:

To , the question u pose at the end of your piece is EXACTLY my research agenda. Look forward to more convo"

Definitely...

 

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