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NightWatch 20110208

NightWatch

For the Night of 7 February 2011

South Korea-North Korea: The National Defense Ministry announced on 8 February that colonel-level preliminary military talks began at Panmunjom. The spokesman provided no details or results.

Comment: This is the first meeting between the two sides in nearly a year. In the public statement the South continued to require the North to accept responsibility for sinking the patrol ship last March and for shelling Yeonpyeong Island last November. During this Watch, no news service reported the North walking out of the talks.

Iraq: For the record. Prime Minister al-Maliki announced he would return half his salary to the government as a gesture of sympathy for the poor of Iraq and that he would not seek a third term as prime minister in 2014. He also said he wanted a constitutional amendment to limit a prime minister to two terms.

Comment: These developments are directly related to events in Egypt which al Maliki cited in announcing his decision to not run again.

Lebanon: Negotiations to form a new government reached a "dead end", according to a statement by one of the pro-Western faction leaders on 7 February. Amin Gemayel of Phalange said his side had given Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati an opportunity to form a government, but despite Mikati's good will, "impossible conditions were imposed on him" that led to an impasse so that a one-sided government might have to form. Gemayel said, "Hezbollah is probably the main side that is controlling the course of developments in Lebanon."

Comment: There will be more talks. The pro-Hezbollah parties want to lead Lebanon too badly to not make concessions and know they lack the political strength to form a durable government alone that would not be vulnerable to US sanctions.

Hezbollah-Egypt: Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah on 7 February called on Egyptian protesters to continue demonstrating and "change the face of the world." Speaking to various Lebanese political parties in Beirut via video, Nasrallah said the country's youth are the protests' strongest participants. He also said the protests show how Middle Eastern countries will no longer tolerate regimes that align themselves with the United States, adding that the ongoing battle is a battle for Arab dignity. Nasrallah noted that Hezbollah will not intervene in the internal affairs of Egypt.

Comment: The significance of this statement is that Hezbollah has been cautious in commenting on the Egyptian protest movement. This appears to be the most authoritative statement that characterizes the demonstrations in Egypt as anti-American. That shows that Nasrallah links them with Hezbollah's political ascendancy in Lebanon. His message is that the wave of change that everyone sees as gathering strength is anti-American.

The problem is no English-language sources have reported much overt anti-Americanism in the Egyptian demonstrations … no images of American Presidents burned in effigy or of American flags burned. The question is Nasrallah just cheerleading because turmoil in Egypt suits his agenda or is their other important evidence not reaching Western audiences. The basis for Nasrallah's interpretation is worth a second look because some of the major news services have slanted their coverage.

Egypt: On 7 February, a report by Der Spiegel stoked news service expectations that the US is engineering President Mubarak's departure from Egypt to Germany for health reasons. One version said the US and Germany are talking with officials from suitable hospitals, such as the Max-Grundig clinic near Baden-Baden. Another version is that the search is for a private clinic cum luxury estate for Mubarak to retire to.

Comment: The problem with an exclusive is that the lack of context and supporting detail makes it vulnerable to denial and re-interpretation. Mubarak illnesses are a constant feature in the political backdrop that would provide a convenient and credible justification for his departure should that prove necessary. Even were Egypt quiet, officials would be making these kinds of investigations.

The new Cabinet promised to keep subsidies in full and draw in foreign investment, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said on 7 February after the first cabinet since the demonstrations began. He said the government would raise military and civilian pensions by 15 percent and would exempt some late loan and tax payments from fines.

The new government is resolved to promote and implement an open door policy and is confident it will carry out the policies successfully, Shafiq added. The Cabinet has already created a committee tasked with monitoring developments in the nation's economy.

Comment: While the political focus of the protests has captivated the nightly news, occasionally an item such as the one above sheds light on underlying grievances that often get translated into political action. Stress in a living system always signifies the failure of that system to satisfy the needs or wants of its members. When the failure of satisfaction persists without relief, the members will organize to exert collective, vice individual, pressure on a recalcitrant government. Thus begins an escalatory spiral or staircase in which, for example, economics becomes political.

Political action is invariably interpreted as a challenge to established authority, when in fact it often is, or started as, a manifestation of a need for more food or a wider sharing of the national wealth. Government misreading of the underlying source of discontent leads to applications of measures that do not correct the failure of satisfaction of needs or wants and that backfire, as in Egypt in the past two weeks, by escalating the challenges to its authority. In short order, folks stop calling for jobs and start calling for the President's job. And when they get it, they find they still have no jobs and neither does he.

Political reform without economic progress almost always means the process will repeat, as in Tunisia over the weekend and continuing. Today's cabinet meeting is the first official action that looks at underlying drivers for political action that do not make the nightly news and actually might help stabilize the security situation, except for the hard core.

Special Comment: The demonstrations have caught the Muslim Brotherhood by surprise. They appear to be scrambling to find a strategy for taking leadership, if not credit, for them. Thus far they seem to be running hard to catch up. The window for political change without the Brotherhood and similar minded groups in the lead is closing.

The Brotherhood has done enough to gain greater visibility and legitimacy than at any time during Mubarak's tenure. It might be content to position itself for a next time when it will be better informed and prepared to lead revolutionary change.

BBC reported there are new calls for more protests because normality is beginning to return to Egypt. Airline schedules are returning to near normal; ports are working; banks are open under limited conditions, putting cash back into people's pockets by affording access to personal and business accounts. If the series of economic measures draws off the energy of the demonstrations, then one inference is that economics was a key driver. There is no way to compel a government to satisfy economic needs and wants except through political processes or violence.

Tunisia: The Tunisian parliament approved a bill on the 7th that would authorize interim President Fouad Mebazaa to issue presidential decrees, KUNA reported. The draft legislation was approved by a majority of 214 lawmakers and opposed by 16 lawmakers. Two members abstained.

Mebazaa will be able to sign decrees for the next six months, until the next presidential and parliamentary elections. The measure is necessary to ensure peace, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament calling for the dissolution of the assembly before the vote.

The Defense Ministry called to active duty soldiers who retired within the past five years and youths who recently completed mandatory service. They have been ordered to report to duty beginning 13 February.

Comment: This extraordinary measure appears to be a response to violent attacks on police stations and government offices. Hundreds of protesters demanding emergency relief aid raided the Ministry of Social Affairs in Tunis. The army was able to remove ministry workers from the building and prevent clashes between workers and protesters.

Expanding the army is a jobs program of sorts, but it looks like the kind of action that ousted President Ben Ali would have taken. The revolution seems to be missing.

Algeria: City authorities banned an opposition march scheduled for 12 February in Algiers. The rally, planned by opposition umbrella organization the National Coordination for Change and Democracy, can be held in any indoor venue in Algiers, the city hall said. The Rally for Culture and Democracy party said it would ignore the order and proceed with the rally.

Comment: Algerian authorities apparently intend to try a different approach to contain or channel political protests: containment. This does not restrict what can be said or how loud, just where it may be said.

End of NightWatch for 7 February.

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