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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Egypt and Iran: A tale of 2 Revolutions


            Egypt in February 2011 is not Iran January 1979.  And those darkly predicting that Egypt’s revolution is fated to turn into another Islamic dictatorship are ignoring the many stark differences between the two situations.  But as Egypt enters an unknown course, I am reminded of the fate of  Sadegh Ghotzbadeh, once Iran’s Foreign Minister, ultimately destroyed by the man and movement he devoted his life to bring to power.

            I first met him in October 1976 in Paris when I was a producer at 60  Minutes, teamed up with Mike Wallace.  I was investigating the activities outside Iraq of the Shah’s feared secret police, the Savak.  The most remarkable story came from Ghotzbadeh, then a 37 year-old Iranian dissident, active with one of the many exile groups in the French capital.  A handsome, impeccably dressed Iranian, he spoke fluent English and French and had been working against the Shah since his university days in the United States. He introduced us to a stocky 67 year-old Armenian by the name of Jules Khan Pira—his would-be assassin.
            In heavily accented French, Khan Pira  recounted how, under threat of a complex blackmail scheme by the Savak, he had been ordered to assassinate several opposition leaders. At the top of the list was Zadegh Ghotbzadeh.
This led the to one of the most unlikely interviews we had ever filmed: a large suite at the George V, a dapper Ghotzbadeh, in dark blazer and tie, sitting next to him, the shabbily dressed Khan Pira, the two revolvers that Khan Pira said he had received from the Savak agent, sitting  on a table between them.
Improbable as it seemed, Khan Pira's tale checked out both in France and the U.S. But what is most revealing in retrospect is that nowhere in the 60 Minutes report did we feel the need to mention specifically what Ghotbzadeh was up to in Paris.  He was the major representative in Western Europe and America of an elderly, bearded, Iranian cleric, who was then exiled in Iraq and hardly known in the West, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. At the time, in fact, Khomeini seemed to be a very discardable footnote to our story.  
             Over the next few months, however Ghotzbadeh, with the fervor of the true believer, continued to provide me the latest printed petitions and protests from the Iranian opposition, condemning this or that brutal aspect of the Shah's regime and calling on a highly indifferent world to take action.  
            Most intriguing of all to me was the key role that Moslem clerics, and their leaders, such as Khomeini, were playing in all of this, even from exile. There was an underground network among the theological centers of learning and the mosques across Iran. There were clandestine newspapers and an elaborate system of circulating Khomeini's revolutionary speeches via audio cassettes throughout the country.  Very little of this had been noticed by the Western press.
Which was the major reason I was unable to convince 60 Minutes to do a report. Finally, in October 1978, with introductions arranged by Ghotzbadeh, I flew to Teheran and was plugged into the clandestine network of the Islamic movement. They were a curious mixture of professors and students or all ages, of Muslim clerics from ragged villages in the countryside to the Holy City of Qom, of wealthy shop keepers from Teheran's sprawling Bazaar, of  middle class professionals.  Many of them, like Ghotzbadeh, had been  educated in the U.S. or Western Europe.
 I was impressed by their fervor, but also by the fact that, when pressed , none seemed to be able to define precisely what an Islamic Revolution was all about.  One evening I met with a group of about ten young men and women in Tehran , many of them university students and teachers.  After a lengthy discussion of the on-going revolt, I suddenly asked what an Islamic government would actually look like.  Well, for one thing, said one young man in a dark turtleneck. “Women would have to cover their hair.” The women in the room seemed to agree.
“But what if a woman didn’t want to cover her hair?” I  asked. 
“Then her brother or her husband would take her aside and try to convince her, ” said another man, with a soft smile.
 “And what if she still didn’t want to?”
             “We would keep trying to convince her,” said the man, still smiling.          
“And, if after all that, she finally still refused?
 “That would be her right,” said one of the women.
“No, said a man, “in that case, she would not be allowed to go out.”
“And if she still insisted?”
  “We might have to put her in prison.” said the man in the turtleneck. His words seemed to surprise several in the room. 
“For now such questions are secondary,” one of the teachers said.  “The immediate work at hand is to bring down the Shah. Defining the new government will come later through democratic elections.”
               The revolution was now gaining momentum, with weekly marches and weekly martyrs.  The Shah seemed totally unable to deal with the situation Back in Paris,  Ghotzbadeh, told me he was heading to Iraq to see Khomeini. "Look," I said, "if I can get you a small film camera would you take pictures of him for us?” He was delighted with the idea, he said, since it would also give him a chance to get some film footage of Khomeini to circulate in Iran for his own purposes. Up till then, he had none.  
            But events were moving too fast. The French government, always attuned to the changing political winds, yielded to Ghozbadeh’s entreaties and allowed Khomeini to come to Paris.
             By  December 1978, it was obvious that the Shah was out. Ghotzbadeh  was exultant as we entered a fine restaurant for lunch in Paris.  He was immediately recognized by the maitre de, escorted to the best table. The 39-year-old dissident, who for years had travelled about from one Western capital to another, staying in shabby hotels, attempting to interest reporters and politicians with his apparently forlorn cause, representing an Iranian cleric none had even heard of, was now appearing on everyone's TV screen. He was one of the key spokesmen for the bearded Ayatollah, whose image was now recognized around the world. They were on the brink of power. The Shah's rapid collapse had amazed everyone, including the opposition.
   In a few days they would fly to Teheran, Ghotbzadeh told me with supreme confidence. Khomeini would be their spiritual leader, but the real source of government, he assured me, would be Western-educated reformers like himself. 
I raised the question of the world’s great revolutions and how they all seemed to follow the same dynamic--from the French to the American to the Russian-- how they all seemed to arrive at some Terror, how they devoured their young before they subsided and the political pendulum gradually swung back to centre.  How will you avoid being devoured? I asked Ghotbzbadeh , only half in jest. "Don't worry,” he said.  “We know what we're doing."
            That's, of course, not the way it worked out. The revolution became increasingly chaotic, increasingly radicalized, as competing parties and factions struggled violently for power, particularly after the American hostages were taken.    Zadegh manoeuvred desperately trying to stay on the political tightrope—head of Iranian TV, ultimately Foreign Minister.
         He helped us get an exclusive interview with Khomeini after the hostages were taken. Nine months later, in December 1980, with the hostages still being held, we returned to Iran. War had broken out with Iraq after Saddam invaded, quietly encouraged by the United States.
                We interviewed Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, an  economist turned President, and totally out of his element.  The war had even further radicalized politics in Iran and Bani-Sadr  had become a virtual prisoner in his own presidential palace.  The Imam Khomeini had thrown in his lot with the Islamic radicals. The Western educated revolutionaries like Bani-Sadr  and  Sadegh Ghotbzadeh had been thrust to the side.
In a Kafkaesque interview, Bani-Sadr talked frankly of the mounting wave of torture and repression under what in theory was his own government. He  condemned the road the revolution seemed to be taking.  Shortly afterwards he fled Iran for his life to become an exile in Paris.
    Zadegh Ghotzbadeh chose a different fate.  A few months before our visit he had been thrown in prison, charged with conspiring against the regime. It was only Khomeini's personal intervention that saved him.  Ghotzbadeh was  released, and ordered by the Imam to  go home,  stay there and stop his plotting.
Our last evening in Teheran in December 1980, Mike and I went over to Ghotbzadeh's spacious residence.  He greeted us with a wan smile. He was blunt in his criticism of Khomeini and the way in which the Revolution had been perverted from the goals that Western-educated Iranians had hoped it would take. "The Imam," said Ghotzbadeh, "had promised us before the Shah fell that, once the Revolution had won, he would go back to the Holy City of Qom and give us occasional spiritual guidance. But the real job of government would be left to us. But he misled us. Once he tasted power, he liked it. We were betrayed."
It was obvious Ghotzbadeh was ignoring Khomeini’s stern warning to stop conspiring.  Several people were there, some of them mullahs, others with the bearing of military officers. They talked softly in small groups. Occasionally one came over to speak in Farsi with Ghotzbadeh.  Yet Sadegh was still optimistic about the future, he said as we left. It was after midnight. The others remained.
Ghotzbadeh was rearrested a few months later and charged with attempting to overthrow the Islamic government in order to establish a secular republic. Though at his trial he denied the accusation, he was also charged with planning to assassinate the Imam Khomeini, the man he helped bring to power.
 On September 21, 1982, at Teheran's infamous Evin Prison, Zadegh Ghotzbadeh was placed before a wall and executed, shot through the neck.





Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak out--so many other countries to go

From the New York Post January 21
Saudi King Abdullah and his enormous retinue needed "at least a dozen" tractor-trailers to load their mountain of luggage and an army of outside contractors to do security screening before he could fly out of JFK last week. A source told us, "The amount of luggage they had from shopping they did in New York was awe-inspiring. Airport workers joked they must have been 'a mini-stimulus package' for the city." The king, 87 -- who was in town for two months for back surgery and booked whole floors of the Plaza and Waldorf-Astoria to recover -- and his entourage left on more than six private jets. Sources said he flew out on his own Boeing 747 while two wives left on smaller jets. One source said, "There were separate jets for wife No. 1 and wife No. 2 and their own retinues. The entourage was so large that the Transportation Security Administration was forced to hire an outside company to complete the screening."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Kissinger on Egypt: Give us a break, Henry

Always comforting to have Henry Kissinger around to advise the current U.S. administration what to do. His latest advice to Obama re Egypt: slow down, take things easier, don’t rush Egypt’s sensitive leaders.

"We should be looking at a democratic evolution," said Kissinger. But he warned the U.S. should cultivate key democratic reformists and military leaders in a low-key fashion during the process. "It should not look like an American project. The Egyptians are a proud people. They threw out the British and they threw out the Russians."

On the other hand, when thin-skinned right wing dictators in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay were disappearing  “democratic reformists” by the thousands in 1976, Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State—not having to worry about lurid accounts of torture on Twitter and Facebook and Al Jazeera-- advised South American generals to get on with their grisly task so as not to provoke censure from a U.S. Congress beginning to waken to the on-going slaughter.  Or, as Kissinger put it to Argentine Foreign Minister Admiral Cesar August Guzzetti,  in June 1976, "If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures."

The things to be done were no secret: human rights organizations and State Department memorandum supplied all necessary details. In Argentina alone more than 10,000 people had been “disappeared” by the end of 1976. But, in the name of fighting the Cold War, those messy kinds of things had to be done said the Generals and their apologists—Kissinger included.

Ironically, for the past thirty years, Hosni Mubarak and his apologists have justified his brutal repression in similar terms. Some are still doing it. It’s just the name of the bogeyman that’s changed: from Communism to Radical Islam aka the Moslem Brotherhood—from Fidel Castro’s revolutionary virus to Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.  The fact that Al Qaeda’s leaders have condemned the Moslem Brotherhood for its willingness to participate in Egyptian politics is a detail.

The parallels between Egypt and the trio of South American military dictators is striking.  According to the State Department memo on the June 10 meeting between Kissinger and Admiral Guzzetti, obtained by the National Security Archives, the Argentine told Kissinger, "Our main problem in Argentina is terrorism. It is the first priority of the current government that took office on March 24. There are two aspects to the solution. The first is to ensure the internal security of the country; the second is to solve the most urgent economic problems over the coming 6 to 12 months. Argentina needs United States understanding and support…."

The NSA analysis of that memo continued, “This at a time when the international community, the U.S. media, universities, and scientific institutions, the U.S. Congress, and even the U.S. Embassy in Argentina were clamoring about the indiscriminate human rights violations against scientists, labor leaders, students, and politicians by the Argentine military, Secretary Kissinger told Guzzetti: "We are aware you are in a difficult period. It is a curious time, when political, criminal, and terrorist activities tend to merge without any clear separation. We understand you must establish authority."

The U.S. Ambassador had earlier protested to the Argentina government about the disappearance and torture of human rights workers, including American citizens. Kissinger, however, told Guzzetti, “In the United States we have strong domestic pressures to do something on human rights… We want you to succeed. We do not want to harrass [sic] you. I will do what I can…."

One could almost hear an American official today—sotto voce—giving similar advice to Egypt’s new Vice-President General Omar Suleiman, the man, let’s not forget, who for the past eight years headed up the feared Intelligence Directorate —infamous for systematic brutality, torture and disappearances; so skilled at their work that it was Suleiman and his uniformed thugs who were frequently used by the CIA’s rendition program.

All of a sudden though, Suleiman with his impeccable dark suit and tie and unflappable demeanor—is now not only the go-to man for torture but also, the go-to man to engineer “a transition to democracy.”

Not too fast a transition though, and certainly not too democratic.

Just as Henry the K. would advise.


Friday, February 4, 2011

The Egytian Army: The Big Unknown (Updated)


The Egyptian Army: Question Marks
In attempting to convince Mubarak to leave the scene, Washington desperately wants  to avoid further radicalization on the streets of Egypt and, above all, to ensure that the Egyptian Army remains unscathed. That interest, of course, coincides with the aim of Egypt’s top brass.  
The generals are intent on continuing to exercise power behind the scenes—as they have for decades.  
The announcement that the Army would refuse to take up arms against the people was part of that game plan. It undercut Mubarak and prevented him from attempting a bloody showdown that could have been disastrous—for the people, and the army. In fact, the Egyptian military made that same announcement in 1977 when they were called in to quell riots after President Sadat announced cuts in basic food subsidies. The Army refused to intervene unless the subsidies were reestablished. Sadat restored the subsidies.
That doesn’t mean that the Army would be willing to step aside for whatever the will of the people turns out to be. But, if they could be assured that they could remain the nation’s guardian, as in Turkey, for instance, what are the political limits the Army would accept?
Of course, the Army is not monolithic. Its ranks are filled with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, drawn from the most humble levels of society. It has traditionally been the most important means of socializing the lower classes, inculcating them with a sense of pride and patriotism. Indeed the 1971 Constitution says that the Egyptian Army shall “belong to the people This sentiment was made dramatically clear by the iconic images of soldiers shaking hands and embracing the demonstrators, even allowing them to paint slogans on their battle tanks.
How then explain the fact that on Wednesday, February 2 in Cairo, organized bands of armed thugs were reportedly allowed to pass through military checkpoints to attack the anti-Mubarak crowds, while the military stood aside, and watched.
That tactic makes eminent sense from the point of view of generals determined to keep themselves from the abyss.  Now that Mubarak has said he won’t run for another term, the generals would like the people to return obediently to their homes. The military will oversee things now, thanks. Only the people won’t go. They don’t trust Mubarak. But, since the army doesn’t want to endanger its own future by using bloody force at this point, let others do the dirty work. The military will keep its hands clean, and pretend it has no responsibility for the bloodshed.
So far, the tactic didn’t work: the people refused to back down.
The top military ranks have concerns other than just protecting their own  institution. They’re also worried about their own skins. They can never forget the lurid spectacle of Iranian generals being executed in the aftermath of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. Iran also demonstrated that a radical revolution also means a radically transformed military, with the traditional army shunted aside. (Egypt’s generals have a constant reminder of that lesson nearby:  The Shah is buried in a Cairo mosque.).
Under Mubarak, the top military ranks have also enjoyed a pampered existence in rambling developments such as Cairo’s Nasr City, where officers are housed in spacious, subsidized condominiums. They enjoy other amenities the average Egyptian can only dream of, such as nurseries, schools and military consumer cooperatives featuring domestic and imported products at discount prices.
One of the most indulged divisions is the Egyptian Republican Guard, responsible for defending Cairo and key government institutions. They are under the control of the Minister of Defense. It is apparently the only significant military unit allowed in central Cairo, apart from the intelligence service’s military branch. Its ranks are filled primarily by highly-trained, highly motivated volunteers rather than conscripts. They are rewarded with bonuses, new cars and subsidized housing.
The Guard was created originally in 1952 as a kind of Praetorian Guard by Nasser to protect the presidency. Do they still view that as their main mission today?
But we’re not just talking about official perks. Many of Egypt’s military brass are notoriously corrupt. It was military land, for instance, that was sold by the generals to finance some major urban developments near Cairo-with little if any accounting.
The military also presides over 16 sprawling factories that turn out not just weapons, but an array of domestic products from dishwashers to computers to medical diagnostic equipment. The military’s farms also produce enough food to feed their ranks with plenty left over to sell to civilians.
The justification for all this non-military activity is that the army is just more efficient that civilians. But that’s hard to prove since their operations are off the books. Many civilian businessmen complain that competing with the military is like trying to compete with the Mafia.
The U.S. also has a 1.3 billion dollar carrot dangling in front of the Egyptian Army. That annual American military aid to Egypt has allowed the Egyptian officers to get their hands on lots of nifty weapons—as we’ve seen over the past few days in and over downtown Cairo.
The generals realize there is no way the U.S. will continue paying for those playthings if a new regime more hostile to the U.S. and/or Israel takes power in Cairo.
Will the generals be willing to forego that aid?
There has also reportedly been a surge recently of religious feeling among the ranks of the military themselves—and their wives.  
Will they be willing to reconsider their traditional antipathy to the Moslem Brotherhood and more radical Islamic movements?
Tune in tomorrow.



Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Egyptian Army: The Unknown Factor



In attempting to convince Mubarak to leave the scene, Washington obviously wants  to temper any further radicalization on the streets of Egypt and, above all, to ensure that the Egyptian Army remains unscathed. That would enable the generals to remain the power behind the scenes in the coming weeks and months—ready to step in, if necessary, to veto any attempt by Islamic fundamentalists to come to power—even by free and open elections. 
But determining what the Egyptian Army will ultimately do requires weighing a host of factors.
The announcement, for instance, that the Egyptian Army would refuse to take up arms against the people played perfectly into Washington’s game plan. It undercut Mubarak and prevented him from attempting a bloody showdown that could have been disastrous. In fact, the Egyptian military made that same announcement in 1977 when they were called in to quell riots after President Sadat announced cuts in basic food subsidies. The Army refused to intervene unless the subsidies were reestablished. Sadat restored the subsidies.
But does that mean the Army would be willing to step aside for whatever the will of the people turns out to be?  For a government dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood, for instance? For a government hostile to the U.S.? to Israel?
Of course, the Army is not monolithic. Its lower ranks are very much of the people: filled with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, drawn from the most humble ranks of society. The army has traditionally been the most important means of socializing and educating the lower classes, in theory, inculcating them with a sense of pride and patriotism. Indeed the 1971 Constitution says that the Egyptian Army shall “belong to the people”" This sentiment was made dramatically clear by the iconic images of soldiers shaking hands and embracing the demonstrators, even allowing them to paint slogans on their battle tanks.
The top ranks of the army, however, have other concerns—beginning with personal survival.  They certainly will never forget the lurid spectacle of Iranian generals being publicly executed in the aftermath of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. Iran also demonstrated that a radical revolution also means a radically transformed military. (Egypt’s generals have a constant reminder of that lesson nearby:  The Shah is buried in a Cairo mosque.).
Under Mubarak, the top ranks of the Egyptian army have also enjoyed a pampered existence, in sprawling developments such as Cairo’s Nasr City. There, as elsewhere in Egypt, officers are housed in spacious condominiums, at highly subsidized rents,  They enjoy other amenities the average Egyptian can only dream of, such as nurseries, schools and military consumer "cooperatives" selling a range of domestic and imported products at discount prices.
One of the most indulged units is the Egyptian Republican Guard, a heavily armored division, with the main responsibility of defending Cairo and key government institutions. They are under the control of the Minister of Defense. It is apparently the only significant military unit allowed in central Cairo, apart from the intelligence service’s military branch.  Its ranks are filled primarily by highly motivated volunteers rather than conscripts. They are rewarded with bonuses, new cars and subsidized housing and greater training than the regular army.
The Guard was created originally in 1952 as a kind of Praetorian Guard by Nasser to protect the presidency. Do they still view that as their mission today?
But we’re not just talking about subsidized apartments.  Many of Egypt’s military brass are notoriously corrupt. They have used their power to line their pockets, just as have their civilian government counterparts. It was military land, for instance, that was sold by the generals to finance some major urban developments near Cairo-with little if any accounting.
The military also presides over a sprawling network of 16 factories across the country, employing tens of thousands of Egyptians. These factories turn out not just weapons, but an incredible array of domestic products from dishwashers to computers to medical diagnostic equipment. The military’s farms produce enough food to feed their ranks with plenty left over to sell to civilians.
The military’s justification for all this non-military activity is that the army is just more efficient that civilians. But many civilian businessmen complain that competing with the military is like trying to compete with the Mafia. The army’s operations they say are riddled with cozy inside dealings. In any case, once again, there is no public accounting. No one is quite sure whether they are making or losing money or who is pocketing the profits. Their operations are all off the books.
Though unspoken, such considerations will certainly be in the minds of the generals calling the shots in Cairo.
The U.S. also has a 1.3 billion dollar carrot dangling in front of the Egyptian Army. That annual American military aid to Egypt has allowed the Egyptian officers to get their hands on some of the most sophisticated of modern weapons—as we’ve seen over the past few days in downtown Cairo.
The generals realize there is no way the U.S. will continue paying for those goodies if a new regime more hostile to Israel takes power in Cairo.
Will they be willing to let that go?
On the other hand, there has reportedly been a surge in Islamic militancy among the ranks of the military themselves—and their wives. 
A frightening new era opens for Israel and its American friends.