Tunisia: Testing ground for Western companies’ censorship software

On day one of the 3rd Arab Arab Bloggers Meeting, Moez Chakchouk the new chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) revealed that Ben Ali’s Tunisia was used as a testing ground for censorship software developed in Western countries. Also see Al JAzeera English Yasmine Ryan’s recent interview. Now that one stage in the revolution is complete he calls on bloggers, activists, and politicians to ensure such censorship will have no place in a new Tunisia. Revealing the nefarious plots of Western companies in Tunisia has implications for other countries and the global movement for human rights.

In 2008 Naomi Klein revealed that with secret funding from US congress and illegal contracts with US firms, China developed its sophisticated surveillance networks. Surveillance networks that have been used to monitor, suppress, arrest, torture, murder, and quash popular attempts for freedoms and human rights. Her article raised serious questions about Western culpability in supporting brutal crackdowns on popular protest and human rights defenders. Now, with the overthrowing of oppressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt it is timely to return to this discussion. What role has the West played in supplying oppressive regimes with the technology to suppress? How has such certification empowered repression?

Still, with changes in local laws across the United States and Europe, Charles Tilly among others have pointed out a trend of dedemocratization. Tilly writes:

“Contrary to the comforting image of democracy as a secure cave into which people can retreat forever from the buffeting of political storms, most regimes that have taken significant steps toward democracy over the last two centuries have later de-democractized at least temporarily. A surprising number of regimes that actually installed functioning democratic institutions then returned to authoritarianism.”

This has implications for revolution. Once the tyrant, the target of the revolution is overthrown, the revolution is far from over. Democracy does not cling to elections alone. And to ensure a proper transfer to democracy requires a robust system of free expression and access to information, uncensored media, access to education, and the ability to question and share ideas and criticisms. This is not a one hemisphere definition of democracy. What this means is that repression, surveillance, censorship, these are not isolated problems of the ‘developing world,’ as offensive as many postcolonialist scholars find that word, these are global problems that connect all human life.

In his presentation Moez lays out a clear outline of how these interconnected systems worked under Ben Ali. His slideshow is available online. The importance of these realizations in indisputable. A revolution is not a single event isolated within a single country. The connection between nations, the exchange of repressive strategies and techniques from the School of the Americas to US backed Indonesian Death Squads–revealed in 2010 by Alan Nairn–to the recent evidence of Tunisia’s significance in the war on censorship reveals a global trend. Only by cleaving apart the individual episodes of repression and resistance, by understanding the transferable mechanisms and processes, will those who have been voiceless to question and powerless to oppose begin to form boundary-spanning claims for human rights.

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Arab Spring, Nobel Winter?

According to the Stockholm based International Peace Research Institute the “Arab Spring” is the focus of speculation over the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee’s awarding of the prize to the “Arab Spring” would, “be consistent with their effort to give attention to high-profile and extremely important, potentially breakthrough developments by movements and by people,” according to Bates Gill, director of the Institute, quoted in a recent article by CBS news. Speculations aside, those who drool for the often controversial Nobel Peace Prize announcements will have to wait until October 7.

In the meantime we might begin to examine the rumors and raise questions of the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize which has been awarded, to much criticism since Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjoern Jagland took over as the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2009, for purposes of preempting peace as with the criticized receipt of Barak Obama in 2009. Obama, who incidentally increased US troop presence in Afghanistan, began unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, failed to secure the closure of Guantanamo Bay, refused to acknowledge the litany of serious charges of willing disregard for international law lobbied against members of the former administration, and most recently authorized the targeted assassination of US citizen, and suspected Al-Qaeda Imam, Anwar Al-Awlaki, in retrospect may not have been a deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The logic of preempting peace through the prize appears to have failed in this case. But this should not, in principle, tarnish the force of the Nobel Prize.

Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 receipt of the prize in absentia, the third recipient to be thus awarded since the origins of the Peace Prize 110 years ago, may be a strongly challenged thing in the mind of Hu Jintao and China’s elite but for much of the international community it seemed to patch some of the holes in the prize’s reputation. It was awarded to someone with a long history of campaigning for human rights and an end to tyranny, for democratic reform, and a history of abuse at the hands of his government.

If we look at the last two year’s recipients we see a prize awarded in hopes of what might be (Barak Obama) and a prize awarded for what has been (Liu Xiaobo). This has lead apparently to discussions on awarding a prize for what is. We seal the future, the past, and now the present. The logic of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, according to Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, “is that they really want to speak to current affairs. There is an eagerness to not only award a prize that has had an impact in the present but also to use the prize to impact the present.”

Jan Egeland, a former Norwegain deputy foreign minister, was quoted saying, “My strong sense is that this (Nobel) committee and its leader want to reflect the biggest international issues as defined by a wide definition of peace.” From a social and linguistic point of view, it is a matter of definitions that present concern. The award of the prize to a representative of the “Arab Spring,” runs the risk of inadvertently putting an end to any serious discussion of: what was the “Arab Spring,” and; what words should we use to refer to whatever it was. It conveys an internationally legitimized form and meaning to the myriad events before they have been fully placed in social and historical context, it would seem.

If it goes to the “Arab Spring,” who will be chosen as the symbol of a movement that has swept across the lives of millions of people and, this number could be contested, some eight or nine countries? Harpviken addresses this difficulty, “It’s particularly hard in the context of these protests where there hasn’t always been an identifiable leadership.

Harpviken’s top picks are Egyptian activists Israa Abdel Fattah (Facebook Girl), Ahmed Maher and Harket Shabab 6 April [The April 6 Youth Movement], a pro-democracy Facebook group they co-founded in 2008. The April 6 Youth Movement was originally founded to support the striking workers of El-Mahalla El-Kubra but from there it went on to represent a platform for dissent against the oppressive Mubarak regime. Consequently they played an guiding role in mobilizing resistance on the internet and on the streets, borrowing their tactics, and their insignia-the clenched fist- from the Serbian student movement Otpor which was instrumental in ousting Slobadan Milošević. While the April 6 Youth Movement clearly represents a powerful force for non-violent mobilization, resistance and peace, if it is selected as the representative of “The Arab Spring” it would further entrench what appears to be a growing narrative of Egyptian ownership.

Harpviken’s second choice is Wael Ghonim. Wael, an Egyptian born, Dubai based, marketing executive for Google, played a considerable role in online mobilization through his Facebook page which logged some 400,000 Egyptian followers. A powerful domestic force, he achieved international status and appeared to inject a surge of energy into the Egyptian movement following his emotionally charged interview after being freed from his 12 days of secret detention by Mubarak forces. It would seem that this nomination would run the same risk of placing ownership of a regional movement in the hands of the Egyptian people.

His third pick is Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni who stood out as an early force in criticizing the regime in December. Like the other nominations, Mhenni capitalized on the social networking and mobilization potentials of Facebook, with her profile name Tunisian Girl. While people might enquire why not award the prize to Mohamed Bouazizi, after all it was his self-immolation that catalyzed the revolution in Tunisia, the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. But questions about other deserving candidates may linger.

While the nomination of a Tunisian activist may place the prize in a slightly more accurate time line, as to whence the transnational pro-democracy movement began, it continues the problem of assigning ownership to a single individual and country. This is a convenient choice for categorizing and understanding the complexities of such phenomena and perhaps a necessary categorization for the prize but it opens the door to a number of concerns over the evolution of the narrative of indigenous resistance to domination. Naming the Nobel Prize in honor of the “Arab Spring” and awarding it to a single individual or organization, deserving as they may be, while it admittedly implies an honor for the accomplishments of many interconnected sites of resistance it would also begin to solidify a certain international narrative for what has taken place, and what is taking place.

The concern is that the narrative of these episodes of resistance may be sidelined to parochial conceptualizations and analyses. While there is not enough space to expand on a discussion of the Nobel Peace Prize tout court I would point out one critical analysis of this discourse on the “Arab Spring” and the prize selection and awarding process.

Awarding the prize to a single force within a greater regional conflict, a greater regional testimony to the changing dynamic of an internationally exploitative structure, may damage the potential for a critical re-articulation of international power. The episodes that have taken place across the region, and connected with episodes of protest that have been waged from Madison, Wisconsin to Athens, Greece are intrinsically linked to a central issue of domination and resistance. While what has taken place in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and what individuals and organizations in neighboring countries are hoping to accomplish is more than the ouster of a particular dictator. It calls for the reexamination of the international system, a reexamination of shallow political and economic peace. It calls for a critical assessment of human security.

According to CBS, The Nobel Committee “sees the Nobel Peace Prize as a catalyst for change, encouraging efforts to make the world more peaceful, democratic and respectful of human rights.” However, if the inherently international character of these episodes are categorized as the successes of a single country, organization, or individual, the much deeper potential changes for social and political transformations may be sidelined to the discussions of regional particularities.

Far from arguing against awarding the Peace Prize in honor of the “Arab Spring,” I simply want to offer this conceptual dilemma: will the framing of the events that have swept across many countries conform to a dominant discourse, be placed into a partial picture, ignoring structural failures of the entire international system. What has taken place in the “Arab Spring” is a tremendous opportunity but if treated superficially the ‘catalyst for change’ and the respect for human rights will be transformed into a catalyst for soundbites and rumors.

Postcolonial Thoughts from Tunisia: An Introduction

In Robert J.C. Young’s introduction to Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction he writes:

Have you ever been the only person of your own colour or ethnicity in a large group or gathering? It has been said that there are two kinds of white people: those who have never found themselves in a situation where the majority of people around them are not white, and those who have been the only white person in the room. At that moment, for the first time perhaps, they discover what it is really like for the other people in their society, and, metaphorically, for the rest of the world outside the west: to be from a minority, to live as the person who is always in the margins, to be the person who never qualifies as the norm, the person who is not authorized to speak (Italics mine) (Young, 2003: 1).

I enjoy the challenge at the core of this hypothetical. But we must be cautious not to misinterpret its meaning. It does not presuppose, within single racial or ethnic groups, an equality of perceptions or an equality of collective identity preferences. The notion of ‘minority’ cannot be simply expressed by the physical number of persons within a given social space in relation to the greater number of persons of a given group in relationship to which both are measured as having a certain percentage of the total population. This hypothetical is about more than simply counting the numbers of individuals of a certain phenotype in the room, when they are the lone person of X color introduced into a cultural environment outside of their ethnonational, cultural, socio-political borders. It requires us to examine critically the notions of identity, agency, and power.

The issue at stake here is not a matter of feeling minority status simply because you are the only white skinned, black skinned, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, queer, or conservative within the room. The primary difficulty of a representative of the ‘majority’ empathizing with the ‘minority’ is not so easily resolved by plopping a white christian down into a traditional neighborhood in Nairobi, Urumqi, Istanbul, or La Paz, because it neglects the overwhelming power of the ‘majority’s’ monopoly of internationally legitimized cultural, economic, and symbolic capital.

It is far more difficult to bring upon the feelings of alienation, questions of self and collective worth, deterritorialization, marginalization and the other well known conditions of the globally designated ‘minority’ than by simply plopping this ‘only white person in the room’ into whatever environment they find themselves to be the minority in terms of phenotype alone. Again, they may come to some superficial realization of ‘what it is really like for the other people in their society’ but this realization will be fleeting. Firstly it will always be tinted by the knowledge that a return to their position of power, in relation to the rest, is a possibility. Inherent in this realization is the very fact that they come from a position of power, and privilege. But to fully grasp this notion we must withdraw ourselves from both this hypothetical in the local setting and from an unfortunately reductive categorization of the majority and the minority that is based on phenotype alone; after all, an ethnic minority in the United States may well find themselves in a position of ‘majority’ power, in relation to their neighbors in the social space of certain Indian cities or Turkish towns.

I do not mean to discredit the very real situation of racial inequality that exists all over the world. And one that in many respects, has been artificially constructed in relation to the unfortunately dominant conceptualization of worth that has emanated from Western Europe and the United States. After all, my Greek friends have told me that in Greece it is not uncommon that wealthy, well dressed black men are stopped by the police and questioned. There have been cases where Swiss or American citizens, well dressed, or in the costume of the tour bus type, have been verbally assaulted by the police of Greece, accused of being illegal immigrants from Africa, having their passports or national IDs ripped up in front of them, are taken into custody until a word from their respective Embassy wins nothing but their freedom. No apologizes or investigations into racism follow. Many Chinese express distrust or fear of their dark skinned ethnicities: Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and the like, but also reproduce many racist stereotypes. It is the same in many corners of the world. It is a serious problem.

The market value of skin whitening creams, despite an unfortunately unregulated clinical process for testing the products which has resulted in a horrendous number of disfigurements, throughout Asia and Africa is proof of this nefarious and dominant signification that light skin equals higher worth. There is no argument that global racism is a scourge that is far from being uprooted. The rise of xenophobic nationalism and fascism in Europe and the United States, anti-Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, or the categorical anti-Black African sentiment one might find from Utrecht to Berlin, Barcelona to Sofia, the anti-Mexican, Guatemalan, Pakistani sentiments in the United States, hatred and mistrust of Muslims, the darker the skin the more aligned with Al-Qaeda they appear to many fervent Fox News viewers. But it is more complicated than pigmentation alone.

How will this ‘only white person in the room’ know the experience of the ‘world outside the west?’ He or she will often not be a ‘minority,’ even if she is the only person of a certain phenotype simply because she is a metaphor of the dominant culture. It is in relation to her that the margin in constructed. It is in relation to her that the norm has been constructed and brutally enforced. She is always authorized to speak. The American, the German, the French tourist, exchange student, independent researcher, or medical professional, etc. who finds that he is the ‘only white person in the room’ will also likely find that their worth, their value, is conferred by their possession of placement in this dominant cultural identity. While it is often associated with the color of skin, it goes deeper. As Langston Hughes notes in The Big Sea, when he arrived in Africa he was called a ‘white man,’ not because of the color of his skin but because of the color of his passport.

What is at stake in understanding the alienation of the oppressed and silent global South. I have been, from time to time, ‘the only white person in the room,’ or on the train or some such place. Why is it that in such situations my interlocutors will quickly begin to rattle off the names of American singers or movies? They will show off their knowledge of American culture. They will ask me questions about living in America. How much does this or that cost in America? How much does it cost to fly to America? I often find that people, whether a migrant worker from rural Sichuan province, an engineering student from Istanbul, a panhandler in Tunis, or an Anarchist in Athens, will know more about American politics than many citizens of the United States. I find it amusing that a Swedish friend of mine, living in China, knows more about American popular culture than I do. How do these observations factor into an understanding of ‘majority,’ ‘minority’ power dynamics?

I make these cursory observations to point out a critical problem. A member of the dominant culture, from what has become the dominant political, economic, and cultural norm, will not be able to empathize with the so called Other simply by feeling a sense of temporary phenotype marginalization. Furthermore, we may begin to enquire how this affects understanding and analyzing cultures and people that are distinct from our own. The status of the observer, the analyst, and ‘the only white person in the room’ will still be conferred by the fact of a certain, greater source from which power derives its substance. This is perhaps best explained through Bourdieu and symbolic capital.

The ‘only white person in the room,’ the lone British, Australian, or American in Nagarkote, Nepal or Phnom Penh, Cambodia, regardless of pigmentation, is still in possession of a greater degree of status and prestige than the local ‘majority’ because the world system has evolved to pay an unequal reverence to the status of their home countries. It is an illusory worth, constructed in the logic of Empire and enforced through the sanctions of world trade that has brought this particular weltanschauung its majority share of global values. That is, if the ‘only white person in the room’ is from the United States, Great Britain or France, they will likely find that the discourse, the very language of communication in such situations in fact will tend to favor their native tongues, favor their cultural experience. How could this possibly lead to an understanding of what it means to be marginalized and oppressed by the global order of things?

It is a wonderful sentiment. A simple solution to global inequality: send everyone to live in a village or city where they are isolated by the color of their skin or their convictions and we may well break down the walls of cultural, racial, religious misunderstandings. However, this is an impossibility. If it were simply a matter of those in the majority having never stepped out of their comfort zone, which admittedly many do not, than what is to explain the social phenomenon of the Christian missionary? Aren’t there many who would fit into this category, World Bank investigators, International Donor program administrators, field researchers? They knowingly go into the environment where they are likely to be the only one or two of their race or nationality. Instead of feeling the experience of the truly marginalized they spread their own dominant conception of the good. They are guarded by their conviction that they have it right.

The question becomes, is it truly possible for someone from a majority power holding group to ever know the experience of the one they dominate, whether personally and intentionally or inadvertently simply because he passively receives the benefits of his belonging to that dominant group? I have often marveled that the recent US college graduate with a bachelors in History, Communications, or Hotel Management can travel to China, or South Korea to teach English, qualified simply because it is her native language, and earn a salary five times that of her Chinese instructor colleague, with as it often turns out a bachelors or masters in English or English Education. Does it suffice to simplify it as a matter of paying a premium for native proficiency or is it part of a deeper inequality, an assumed worth conferred by membership in a certain group or culture? I would argue for the later and in relation to Young’s introductory remarks, I challenge that it is this assumed worth that makes the task of understanding all the more challenging.

In general, this appears to be Young’s real point. He continues, asking the reader:

Do you ever feel that whenever you speak, you have already in some sense been spoken for? Or that when you hear others speaking, that you are only ever going to be the object of their speech? Do you sense that those speaking would never think of trying to find out how things seem to you, from where you are? That you live in a world of others, a world that exists for others (Young, 2003: 1)?

The answers to this question vary dictated by one’s relationship to power. Identity, self-worth, perceptions of one’s place in society, and the world at large, these are influenced by one’s relationship to the dominant value system. To simply assert that phenotype alone dictates the answers to these questions is negligent to the complexity of identity, power and people’s relative position within the overlapping structures of power, political and economic, social and cultural, linguistic and personal. It is more than the pure structural domination exposed by Sarte or the psychological, interpersonal domination exposed by Memmi. To explore the answers to these questions, Young first encourages us to turn to the discourse on postcolonialism.

In the conclusion to his 1957 Le Portrait du Colonise precede d’un Portrait du Colonisateur [The Colonizer and the Colonized], Albert Memmi puts forth this one very important question, “If the colonized is eliminated, the colony becomes a country like any other, and who then will be exploited (Memmi, 1991: 149).” This challenge must be treated with the severity with which it deserves. And one may continue by asking, what lessons may be learned to address this fundamental question, what theoretical applications from colonial and postcolonial studies may be applied to address this concept. For when the colony becomes a country, ostensibly autonomous in its own right, who become the oppressed and exploited; and for that matter, who becomes the exploiter? If we extend our understanding of colonization beyond a rigid disciplinary definition biased toward racial or geographic fixation, then one might argue that colonization is itself, indeed as Memmi does, “above all, political and economic exploitation (Memmi, 1965/1991: 149).” To which I would argue, in line with Said and Spivak, among others, that colonization is discursive exploitation.

It is addressing this that postcolonial literature attempts. For, it is more than a treatment of the world in some ‘after the age of colonization and decolonization’ that postcolonialism comes. It does not imply that the evils of colonialism have been transcended. It is the ‘post’ of ‘postmodernism;’ we may speak of postmodernism but that does not mean we speak of the future, which is reserved for science fiction. It as an attempt, however, to alter the dominant discourse, to shift the lens of examination and understanding away from the power relations of Western and non-Western world-views. It forces the discourse to begin from the acknowledgement that examining the non-Western world, the trend of theorists, historians, and above all policy makers, has been to categorize what they are seeing as more a mirror image of themselves and their own assumptions (Young, 2003: 2), first understood in relationship to the dominant world-view. We see this dilemma clearly in the discourse on the Arab Spring. The language, the questions, the assumptions, and conclusions are, with notable exceptions, merely extracted segments of a world as seen from the West.

For the next several months I will be living in Tunisia. With this new blog I will be offering my thoughts and observations on the social and political transformations. I will not presume to present some farcical objective truth divorced from my own experiences and theoretical orientations; especially considering no such truth exists. All I will attempt to offer is a collection of my thoughts on a particular social space. I will be blogging about my own research but also any piquant tidbits that pop up along the way. 

Memmi, Albert (1991). The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press
Young, Robert J.C. (2003). Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press