What should the West do about dictatorships? Profit from them, of course.

In 2008, a Libyan graduate student at the Arab Academy for Maritime Transport was arrested, deported, blacklisted, and banned from Egypt on suspicion of “homosexual practices”. On April 14, 2015, an Egyptian court upheld the decision, preventing him from re-entering, on grounds of protecting the public morality (1). Last December, a TV presenter named Mona al-Iraqi led a televised raid on a bathhouse in Cairo, which led to mass arrests, “compulsory medical examinations”, and prison sentences.

On April 16, 2015, Egyptian-Canadian Khaled al-Qazzaz, who was an advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohammed Morsi, was at the Cairo airport with his family, having been released after nearly two years in an Egyptian jail, awaiting deportation on medical grounds. They had been promised that Khaled had been cleared of all accusations, was not under investigation, and they could leave the country – Khaled, who had been in jail since 2013, and his wife and children, who had come from Canada to get him. They were detained at the airport for seven hours, their passports confiscated, and left the airport with no information (2).

On April 11, Egypt’s famous “hanging judge”, Nagy Shehata, sentenced 14 Muslim Brotherhood members to death, and 36 others to life in prison, including US-Canadian citizen Mohammed Sultan (3). Shehata is quite a countenance, pictured always in sunglasses. Human rights researcher Priyanka Motaparthy summarized Shehata’s methods in a tweet (4) “#Egypt judge Shehata sentenced 204 people to death & 534 ppl to 7395 years in prison in just 5 rulings. Probably w/o removing his sunglasses.”

Back in February, Egypt’s president Sisi gave an interview to Der Spiegel, which provides insight into his mind (5). Given that power in Egypt is concentrated in Sisi’s hands, his beliefs have consequences. This exchange, in which Sisi explains his massacre of hundreds people in terms of a “civilizational gap” is remarkable:

SPIEGEL: What happened on Rabaa Square was a massacre in which at least 650 Morsi supporters were killed by security forces. Those events represent an abuse of power.

Sisi: I reiterate that you are judging us based on your criteria. The number of victims at Rabaa could have been 10 times higher if the people had stormed the square. And the Egyptians were prepared to do that. The sit-ins were allowed to continue for 45 days and people had to look on as one of the main squares in our capital city was totally paralyzed. We had repeatedly called on the protesters to clear out peacefully. Would something like that be allowed in your country?

SPIEGEL: Our police would not fire live ammunition. If possible they would use tear gas or water cannons. And in our country, the interior minister would have to resign after a massacre like that.

Sisi: I am not ashamed to admit that there is a civilizational gap between us and you. The police and people in Germany are civilized and have a sense of responsibility. German police are equipped with the latest capabilities and get the best training. And in your country, protesters would not use weapons in the middle of the demonstrations to target police.

In the same interview, Sisi was asked about three al-Jazeera journalists, who were still in jail after many months. His response: the judiciary is independent and must not be interfered with. The interview was published in the February 7 issue of Der Speigel, and it’s unclear when it was conducted. What is clear is that earlier that week, one of the three al-Jazeera journalists, Australian Peter Greste, was deported to Australia – freed, in other words, through some opaque process of negotiation, from the Egyptian prison system and from its ‘independent’ judiciary. Curiously, the independent judiciary could not manage the same feat for Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, who is of Egyptian origin and renounced his Egyptian citizenship because he was promised this would lead to his release. Nor of course could it manage that feat for Egyptian journalist Baher Mohamed.

Fahmy and Mohamed are out on bail and are being retried by the same vaunted ‘independent’ judiciary that put them in jail in the first place and that sentenced blogger Alaa abd-el Fattah to five years in jail (6). Since his release on bail, Fahmy has avoided any criticism towards Egypt’s government, and wondered why Canada couldn’t get him home the way Australia had done for Greste (7). Egypt’s authorities have not shown Fahmy the same consideration.

As for Canada’s government, it is primarily interested in doing a certain kind of business with Egypt. Export Development Canada is a government institution dedicated to financially supporting Canadian companies to do business overseas. It’s Egypt country page says that the EDC has assisted 65 Canadian companies, insured 89 international buyers, and done $141 million CAD of business. The disclosure page shows the companies assisted this year: the African Ex-Im Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, and Transglobe Petroleum International, Inc. (8, 9).

In other words, the same Canadian authorities that have found themselves unable to facilitate the release of a Canadian journalist arrested for doing his job, have found themselves able to facilitate a few tens of millions of dollars of business – all the while claiming implicitly that they have insufficient leverage to influence the situation in Egypt. Just enough leverage influence to profit from it, presumably.

Scott Long of paper-bird.net is a blogger who has chronicled Egypt’s descent into totalitarianism. He tells a story of how he was approached at a cafe and asked about his interest in human rights. He gave the man his contact information, but afterwards, he writes, he “cringed inside”, because he wondered whether he had just helped someone or endangered his own security (9):

Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Egypt’s increasingly totalitarian dictatorship is not described that way by the countries that do business with it, even if countries have citizens who have suffered at its hands. But look at its “hanging judge”. Listen to its president explain away mass murder in terms of a “civilizational gap”. Look at its bans for “homosexual practices” and its bathhouse raids, its jailing of bloggers and writers, its murders of activists like Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, its new laws on protests. For North American governments like Canada’s, who send bombs to other countries in the region on the basis of “civilizational gap” type arguments, what is this dictatorship? A place to make money.


(1) See Mada Masr, “Court Grants Interior Ministry authority to deport ‘foreign homosexuals'”, April 15, 2015. http://www.madamasr.com/news/court-grants-interior-ministry-authority-deport-foreign-homosexuals.

(2) Khaled al-Qazzaz’s family’s website, April 16, 2015: “653 Days – FREEKQ – Khaled and his Canadian family allowed to leave Airport after 7 Hours” http://www.freekhaledalqazzaz.com/home/2015/4/16/653-days-freekq-khaled-and-his-canadian-family-allowed-to-leave-airport-after-7-hours

(3) CTV News, April 11, 2015: “US-egyptian citizen gets life behind bars, 14 sentenced to death”. http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/u-s-egyptian-citizen-gets-life-behind-bars-14-sentenced-to-death-1.2322395.

(4) https://twitter.com/priyanica/status/592229159612653568

(5) Der Spiegel February 9, 2015. “Interview with Egyptian President Sisi”. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-egyptian-president-sisi-calls-for-help-in-is-fight-a-1017434.html

(6) See the UK Guardian February 23, 2015. “Egyptian activist Alaa abd El Fattah sentenced to five years in jail.” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/23/egyptian-activist-alaa-abd-el-fattah-sentenced-five-years-jail. See also Omar Robert Hamilton’s blog in London Review of Books, “The Verdict”: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/02/23/omar-hamilton/the-verdict/

(7) UK Independent February 13, 2015. “Freed Al-Jazeera Journalist: Why can’t Canada get me home?” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/freed-aljazeera-journalist-why-cant-canada-get-me-home-10045889.html

(8) EDC’s Egypt country page: https://www.edc.ca/EN/Country-Info/Pages/Egypt.aspx. Disclosure page: https://www19.edc.ca/edcsecure/disclosure/DisclosureView.aspx.

(9) paper-bird.net: “Deport me!” April 18, 2015.

First published on TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Profiting-from-Dictatorship-20150429-0019.html

The Filimbi Affair and #Telema

In January of this year, protests erupted in Kinshasa, the capital of the DR Congo, against President Joseph Kabila. He came to power in 2001 as acting president when his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated. He was affirmed as president by a 2002 peace accord, and he was elected in what was probably a fair election in 2006. He was re-elected in what was probably a stolen election in 2011. His second, and final, term is up in 2016. The protests, called the #Telema (the word means “rise up” in Lingala – the language spoken in the capital and elsewhere in the DR Congo) movement, followed the announcement by Kabila’s government of a proposed law that would delay the 2016 election until a census could be completed. In the DRC, a census could take years, a fact that Kabila was no doubt aware of when the law was proposed.

The protests were started at the University of Kinshasa and the initial demand was for the removal of the offending article of the law that required the census before the election. But over the next few days in January, the demands started to escalate to the removal of Kabila. The armed forces attacked the protesters, with tear gas and live fire (1). An African human rights group gave figures of 14 people killed on the 19th and 28 on the 20th, all by security forces, while the government claimed a lower death toll of 15 people, supposedly looters killed by private security forces (2). Human Rights Watch gave an estimate of at least 21 people killed by security forces (3).

With 42 student protesters killed, ongoing arrests, and a mass grave found in Kinshasa just days ago, the DRC has its own Ayotzinapa.

In the years leading up to these protests, Kinshasa has been the site of a police campaign of social cleansing that left 51 people dead, murdered by masked police on suspicion of being “gang members” in what was called “Operation Likofi” (4). According to HRW’s summary of the operation, “uniformed police, often wearing masks, dragged kuluna, or suspected gang members, from their homes at night and executed them. The police shot and killed the unarmed young men and boys outside their homes, in the open markets where they slept or worked, and in nearby fields or empty lots. Many others were taken without warrants to unknown locations and forcibly disappeared.”

The largest number of protesters were killed on Tuesday, January 20, but the protests continued. By Friday January 23, the government had reconsidered. The bill was amended as the protesters had asked (5). In early February, a spokesperson for Kabila said “President Kabila will end his mandate in 2016. You’ll see” (6).

The student youths that were major players in the Telema protests of January continued to mobilize to try to defend the 2016 election, fearing that Kabila would continue to try to find ways to hang on to power. One of the main pro-democracy youth groups is called Filimbi (“youth for a new society”). In mid-March, they held a two day long workshop, inviting pro-democracy activists from Burkina Faso and Senegal to discuss the movements in their countries. At a press conference at the end of the workshop, the Congolese military swept in and arrested everyone at the meeting – foreign and Congolese alike, thirty people in total. They continue to make targeted arrests of youth activists, and while the foreigners have been released, many of the Congolese arrested in March – and, indeed, in January – remain in custody (7).

An aside here is in order, because while Filimbi is an independent organization, one of the co-sponsors of the event on March 14-15, called FNJE (forum nationale des jeunes pour l’excellence, or the national forum of youth for excellence), was financially supported by the US pro-democracy programs. A USAID official, Kevin Sturr, was arrested at the event and later released. The US Embassy defended the event and its support for it. For those who have seen the damage done to democracy by USAID and similar programs in Venezuela and Haiti, the presence of USAID in this event is cause for caution. But Filimbi and the pro-democracy movement deserve support from everyone concerned with democracy, especially at this early stage, in spite of the presence of USAID at the event. They deserve support because, unlike some of the organizations supported by USAID, NED, and IRI in places like Haiti and Venezuela, their cause is just – they are seeking to uphold the very fragile democratic institutions that are available to them – and they are doing so through popular mobilization and civil resistance as opposed to seeking the violent overthrow of the government.

As Ben Kabamba of Filimbi, now forced to operate underground, said in an interview, “today we are considered enemies of the state, but if we had taken up arms and killed people, we would be rewarded with ministerial posts.” (8) Indeed, the chosen US vehicles for influence in the Congo are not traditionally pro-democracy students, but the armed forces, business groups, private armies, and armies of the DRC’s neighbours, especially Rwanda and Uganda. While the US leaves no stone unturned in the search for influence and does target civil society organizations, it is much more likely that it sees the Congolese pro-democracy movement, and especially its civil and political – as opposed to military – nature, as a threat. It is also unlikely that the US is looking to overthrow Joseph Kabila, who has done nothing against US interests in his 14 years in power.

Even though most political commentators (myself included) have focused on the Congo’s wars, the Congo has a very long tradition of civil, pro-democracy activism. The Congo’s independence was won by such people, and Patrice Lumumba and his companions who won it were also among the first martyrs of the pro-democracy movement. In the early 1990s, the pro-democracy movement forced the Congolese dictator, Mobutu, to agree to a sovereign national congress that was beginning to impose limits on his power. In both cases, brief democratic openings were closed by violence, and in both cases, truly horrific wars followed. Joseph Kabila arrived in the DR Congo as a soldier in one of those wars. If he releases the political prisoners, ceases the campaign of arrests, and steps down, he could still balance out near the right side of Congolese history, even after the 2011 election and even after his recent crimes. The Congo’s friends can, and should, help.

First published at TeleSUR English April 14, 2015: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-Filimbi-Affair-and-Telema-20150414-0017.html


(1) “Congo’s #Telema protests – in tweets.” UK Guardian, January 21, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/21/-sp-congo-telema-protest-twitter

(2) “Church backs Congo protesters, rights group says 42 killed”. Reuters January 21, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/21/us-congodemocratic-politics-protests-idUSKBN0KU0UI20150121

(3) https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/21/human-rights-watch-daily-brief-21-january-2015

(4) HRW, “DR Congo: Police Operation Kills 51 Young Men and Boys” https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/18/dr-congo-police-operation-kills-51-young-men-and-boys

(5) AFP, via UK Daily Mail, January 23, 2015. “DR Congo Senate backs down on electoral bill after deadly clashes” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-2923442/DR-Congo-Senate-backs-electoral-bill-violence.html

(6) Malcolm Beith for Bloomberg, February 5, 2015. “Congo’s President Kabila Will Step Down in 2016, Spokesman Says” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-05/congo-s-president-kabila-will-step-down-in-2016-spokesman-says

(7) A basic website that includes some information about the Filimbi prisoners, demands, and ideas on how to help is telema.org: http://www.telema.org/

(8) http://www.telema.org/interview-with-ben-kabamba-filimbi/

The North American, All-Administrative University

In his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives an explicit institutional analysis that explains what many faculty in North America have been feeling intuitively as their institutions have changed around them. The main change in universities in recent decades, Ginsberg argues, has been the rise of administrators at the expense of the core activities of the university – research and teaching. It matters, he argues, because administrators and professors have different world views. To professors, the university is a means to certain ends, all having to do with knowledge: the creation of it, the development of it, and the sharing of it. To administrators, teaching and research are means to the institution’s ends. They are business lines, which an institution can take or leave, depending on what suits the current institutional goals (profit, or simply the expansion and growth of the administrative part of the institution). In an administrative world view, then, closing down an english department or a math department and allocating those resources to a parking lot is a perfectly rational thing to do.

The tone of Ginsberg’s book is refreshing, and I suspect very deliberately irreverent. Power in an institution depends on maintaining a mystique of insiders who attend exclusive meetings (retreats, seminars, etc.), who are aware of insider language (including particular fads and acronyms), and hierarchies of titles and authority. Ginsberg describes the administration as ‘deanlets’, and pokes fun at their principal activities, including the production of strategic plans, media relations to maintain an institution’s image, travel to seminars and workshops to meet other administrators in person (even if the topics of these workshops is the irrelevance of in-person instruction in the face of e-learning), and of course, the cultivation of relationships with wealthy donors.

The irreverent tone and the damning collection of facts, figures, and some shocking anecdotes describing the rise and effects of the all-administrative university fleshes out a core institutional analysis of how the administration came to power at the university. Ginsberg points to three key developments. First, administration used to be done by faculty who did administrative tasks for a few years before returning to their scholarly and teaching activities. Today, university administration is an alternative career track. Many scholars who go down the administrative path neither plan to nor do return to scholarship, and slowly become what they are surrounded by. Second, administration has developed independence from the faculty in two key ways: independence from faculty’s administrative work was achieved by expanding administrative staff, and independence from the university’s core mission was achieved by expanding the role of private donors. Even if public funds and student tuition still pay most of the bills, a relatively small percentage of money from private donors buys the administration, and the donors, significant control over the institution’s future.

Ginsberg concedes that faculty are far from perfect. “They can be,” he writes, “petty, foolish, venal, lazy, and quarrelsome” (pg. 201) But with administrative power comes new pathologies. Indifference to the university’s core mission means indifference to academic freedom and the possibilities for real creativity, innovation, and social progress that can result; the treatment of research and teaching as business lines comparable to other activities results in shirking, squandering, and outright fraud and corruption; an administrative philosophy emphasizes preparing students for the workplace in low-level vocational and skills-training instead of thinking of the university as a place for human development, where students can grow and challenge and change their own views and, perhaps even come to think about what in the world they could and should change for the better, with their new knowledge.

An interesting chapter, and one I did not entirely agree with, was the chapter on “Realpolitik of Race and Gender”. In it, Ginsberg argues that students from oppressed constituencies strengthen administrative control when they make alliances with administration against faculty. To Ginsberg, academic freedom includes the possibility of discussing and debating matters that may make others uncomfortable. Democratic rules of debate and discussion, as well as of academic freedom and freedom of expression, should be the guide. The administrative solution, however, is to impose such things as mandatory trainings and Student Codes of Conduct – which, having a shaky legal basis, end up being unenforceable. The fact that they are legally questionable is irrelevant, however, because university administrations only apply these codes very selectively (and, I might add, in a politicized way). My disagreement with Ginsberg in this chapter is relatively minor, but I will note it: it is only that students from oppressed constituencies are more likely to turn to (false) administrative solutions if faculty are unsupportive.

The entire discussion is about a key question: who does the university belong to? Here, we might get some help by bringing in another book, Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press 2008). In it, Newfield discusses the threat of vast social change posed by the possibility that everyone in society might join the middle class by universal access to higher education. To Newfield, attacks on faculty privileges, on the obscurity of today’s scholarship, on the humanities and basic sciences themselves, on the attempts to use affirmative action and other tools to make the university truly inclusive – all of these were tools to stave off the prospect of a universally educated, multicultural middle class, with the capacity to shape and change the direction of the whole society. The ideas used to help roll this possibility back included: the notion of a meritocracy, in which the talented rose to the top in a society based on competition; the acceptance of inequality as a fact of life; the notion that market and business outcomes were the final arbiter of what was worth learning and thinking about. I would argue that, to the extent that faculty accept these latter ideas, we are undermining our own autonomy, our own academic freedom, and our own ability to contribute to the development of society through our scholarship and the development of our students through our teaching.

Returning to Ginsberg, who has his own ideas about what faculty have done wrong to facilitate the rise of administrative power. First, faculty have become too comfortable allowing administration to be done by others. Too busy to go to meetings? Too busy to take a part-time administrative post for a few years? Someone else is waiting to make those decisions for you. To take control again, faculty have to become more active – at all levels, but especially on boards of trustees. Faculty have to keep control of teaching away from external and administrative bodies. Second, faculty have succumbed to pressures to produce so many PhDs that the powers and freedoms academics were able to negotiate decades ago when PhD graduates were scarce have been eroded, in part because professors lack the power they had when there was no “reserve army” for universities to rely on. Administrations know that for every tenured academic in their system, there are others with PhDs who are struggling in the part-time, by-course system without any academic freedom or the hope of tenure. Ginsberg concedes that this point, and the idea of supporting the reduction or closing of many PhD programs, constitutes “especially bitter medicine”, and he has no obvious solution, only hope that through “regular two-way communication, members of the faculty and university boards might discover a formula for abating this unacceptable state of affairs.” (pg. 215)

To Ginsberg’s suggestions about what faculty need to do differently, I would add one: as a cantakerous bunch, faculty disagree with one another about many things, from curriculum to labor relations to politics in Israel/Palestine. If faculty cannot have these debates openly and according to democratic and academic norms, and instead seek to use administrative solutions on those whose politics they abhor, they are, again, undermining their own place in the institution, as well as the core mission of the university. If we use – and model – academic principles and respect free expression in debates with those we disagree with, we will be in a much better position to defend these principles against encroachment when our own interests are attacked.

Ginsberg’s arguments were built on evidence from U.S. universities, but to anyone working in a Canadian university, almost everything he describes is eerily familiar and frightening. I have been recommending his book to everyone because, as he says, “the university can be a marvelous institution”, and one “well worth protecting” (pg. 219)

First published on TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-North-American-All-Administrative-University-20150325-0044.html

The Tuition Trap, as discussed by Christopher Newfield

I’ve been thinking about Chris Newfield’s 2008 book Unmaking the Public University a lot lately, and I wanted to reproduce one great quote from page 182, about what he calls “the tuition trap”: how by raising tuition fees, public universities undermine the case for public funding for universities, which shortfall they make up by raising tuition, undermining the case for public funding…:

“The tuition trap goes like this: The public is worried about college affordability, but its public university raises its fees. The university thus implies it does not actually depend on public funding, since it has the private resource of higher tuition at its fingertips. The university may also deepen this impression – that it can do without more public funding – by saying how good it is in spite of public funding cuts. Even worse, it may declare strong public funding a thing of the past in order to justify tuition increases or expanded fund-raising. Taxpayers then reasonably ask, if the university does not need more money, why does it keep raising fees? And since it keeps raising fees, why should we give it more public money?”

He goes on:

“If the university is just another cog in an economic system that is about getting ahead, charging as much as you can, maximizing your returns, and buying your way to the top, why should the general public pay for it?”

Both quotes from pg. 182.

Universities could be very valuable, making huge contributions to the general development of society and accessible to all. For that to happen, public universities have to get out of the tuition trap.