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Egypt; FCIC

Colonel Mathieu
Colonel Mathieu from "The Battle of Algiers" (1966)

(1) Egypt: The Associated Press is reporting that Hosni Mubarek is holding “resignation talks”; Robert Fisk (whose reporting from Cairo has been indispensable–scroll down for more suggested sources) has an article in the Independent on the latest news.

The ambivalence of the Obama administration with respect to the broad popular uprising against Mubarek’s regime, and some of the public discussion about it (e.g. letter writers to the New York Times) brought to mind the excellent scene from The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which the fictionalized leader of the French paratroopers, Colonel Mathieu, is questioned about torture at a press conference. He patiently explains that the military has its orders from the politicians, and the military is just doing what is necessary to keep Algeria French:

“The FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay. Even with slight shades of opinion, you all agree that we must stay. When the FLN rebellion began, there were no shades at all. Every paper, the communist press included, wanted it crushed. We’re here for that reason alone. We’re neither madmen nor sadists. Those who call us fascists forget the role many of us played in the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis don’t know that some of us survived Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Therefore, to be precise, it’s my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.

(My source for this part of the movie’s script is this interesting online article about depictions of torture in movies and TV.)

Seeing the images of all those people peacefully demonstrating, and (more recently) the images of pro-Mubarek thugs inciting chaos, makes the Obama administration’s ambivalence–e.g. Hillary Clinton’s early statements about the “stability” of the Mubarek regime, then Obama’s call on Mubarek to withdraw from the upcoming elections (to be held in September–hello?), and finally their calls for a “transition” to begin now–seem ridiculous and shameful.  (To the consternation of the Israeli government,  U.S. neoconservatives are also split–to the credit of those who are, out of “naivete” (according to John Bolton) siding with the Egyptian people. And it should be added that ex-president Bush should be given credit for the same naivete in his pro-democracy stances in places like Zimbabwe (though of course not in Iraq).)

But from the point of view that usually dominates the U.S. media, that of “national interest” (which almost always means business interests, and in this case goes hand in hand with Israel’s “national interest”), Colonel Mathieu’s words are instructive. Where were all the NYT letter-writers, where was Anderson Cooper, where was Nick Kristoff, for all the years that the United States was backing Mubarek? Most likely they were accepting the consequences of keeping Egypt American, or at any rate not kicking up much of a fuss about U.S. imperialism. Why are they now surprised about the Obama administration’s wariness?

Mathieu was talking about torture, but of course torture is part of the story here, too (and it could become a more central part, if the thugs win the day). Mubarek’s early “concession” after the protests began was to appoint the first vice president he’s ever had. But whom did he appoint? Former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who, according to a great piece at Counterpunch, has a nasty history with torture, and in particular with the United States’ “extraordinary rendition” program. Some of this we know through Wikileaks–another reason to love those folks.  (What seemed strange is that according to the Counterpunch article, on Al Jazeera, whose reporting on the events in Egypt has been indispensable, commentators were initially “describing [Suleiman] as a ‘distinguished’ and ‘respected’ man.”  Not strange, I suppose, if being a torturer is, in certain circles, no barrier to respectability.) I am sure the irony of this “concession” was not lost on the demonstrators, who must know what kind of person Suleiman is;  his appointment must have been intended as an implicit threat masquerading as a concession.

Besides Al Jazeera English, we recommend commentary from Juan Cole’s blog Informed Consent for commentary and analysis on Egypt and uprisings elsewhere in the region.  Fadhel Kaboub, a left economist at Denison University, will write a comment for our March/April issue on the developments in Egypt and Tunisia.  He is also speaking at an event at Brecht Forum in NYC on Tuesday, February 8th (along with Norman Finkelstein, Nizar Aboud, Younes Abouyoub, and Talal Assad).  And there’s an article at Firedoglake about the role of the organized workers’ movement in the uprising in Egypt, plus this from Socialist Worker, this from MRZine, and this by Carl Bloice at BlackCommentator (you have to register to read it , but it is worth it).  Hat-tip to Jennifer Olmsted for pointing us to this commentary by Dawn Sherifa Zuhur.

(2) The Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee: Steve Pressman, an economist at Monmouth University who has been writing book reviews for us for the past year or so, mentioned that he was slogging through the FCIC’s recently released report.  I asked him to send us some thoughts.  Here they are:

The just released Financial Crisis Inquiry Report reminds me of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. If you know whodunit, it is a rather uninteresting and there are no great surprises; if not, the plot is fascinating and the ending memorable. The solution to the mystery in both cases is that everyone did it– although some murderers made small stabs while others made big ones.

Singled out in the Report for special blame is the Federal Reserve. They are supposed to protect the public and ensure the safety and soundness of the financial system, but failed to do so. They could have easily set prudent lending standards and protected consumers from predatory lending; they could have bailed out Lehman Brothers, preventing a financial panic.

Also very guilty is the US Congress, which (with the support of the executive branch) deregulated the financial sector starting in 1980s, leading to risky actions by firms that really are too big to fail.

Among the many murders are Larry Summers and a great many other economists, who continually dismissed warnings about a housing bubble and toxic mortgage-backed securities.

The general public also gets blamed for making bad decisions. They bought homes they could not possibly afford, naively took out interest-only variable-rate mortgages, and trusted mortgage brokers rather than shopping around for the best possible deal.

In the private sector, credit rating agencies “abysmally failed” to do their job of evaluating bonds put up for sale to investors.

Last, but not least, there was a failure of corporate governance, accountability and risk management in large financial institutions; short-term gains (big pay and bonuses for senior executives) took precedence over the long-run financial viability of the firm. Likewise, there was also a breakdown in corporate ethics, as lenders made loans that they knew could never get repaid.

The report ends the same way that any good Agatha Christie murder mystery ends—the killer has been identified and so the world has been made safe from that killer.

Missing from the Report (and also from good murder mysteries) is a sense of outrage over the murder, especially outrage over families losing their homes and people losing their jobs. Also missing are adequate penalties. In murder mysteries they generally do not get discussed. Today, instead of penalties, the guilty parties seem to be prospering rather than awaiting sentencing. Finally, there is no discussion of the systemic factors that contributed to our financial crisis and no recommendations to prevent another killing spree. Sadly, all we have to look forward to are more murder mysteries in the future.

Steven Pressman, Monmouth University

Thanks for slogging and commenting, Steve.

Bill Black has also been commenting on the FCIC, and in particular on one of the Republican dissenters, arch-deregulator Peter Wallison.  Find some of his commentaries here and here.

–Chris Sturr

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