Friday, February 25, 2011

It’s On to Cali and a Real Good Time!

By William Fisher

It’s dangerous to draw too many parallels between the folks who turned out to protest in Tahrir Square in Egypt and the folks protesting outside the State Capital in Madison, Wisconsin.

Both situations are complicated and it’s too easy to fall into a Glenn Beck simplistic, fact-free prescriptive rant about how we got here and what we should do about it.

But there are a few similarities.

In Cairo, you had a brutal dictator, the right-wing conservative Hosni Mubarak, backed by a powerful army, trying to persuade his people yet again that if they just maintained order, and went back to being docile and obedient, his rule would magically bring them all those wonderful things in life denied to them for so long.

In Madison, you have a right-wing conservative governor, backed by wealthy and powerful economic interests, yet again asking the middle class to act against its own economic interests. And they are doing so by trying to persuade these middle class “have-nots” that if they just give up their collective bargaining rights they would magically become “haves” and henceforth be free to pursue their “American Dream.”

Behind the elected officials doing the official persuading were the puppet-masters: the folks we used to call fat cats whose formula for getting richer depends on the rest of us getting poorer.

This is now known as trickle-not economics. In America, trickle-not economic has resulted in the largest disparity in income distribution in our history. We have a tiny slice of the very rich. Then we have all the rest of us. And what used to be the Middle Class is disappearing.

In Egypt, the puppet-masters wore military uniforms; in Madison, business suits.

Even though it was a prank phone call, I think we learned a lot by being able to listen in to Minnesota’s Governor Scott Walker talking to the man he thought was his puppet-master. After all, how often is it we get to eavesdrop on a call from the impersonator of David Koch, the multibillionaire oil guy who, with his brother, has funded much of the right wing’s battle plan? FBI, maybe; ordinary folks, nah!

Two things in particular were revealing. The first was the tone of the conversation. It was clearly puppet-master talking to puppet. And then there was the glee with which the puppet seemed to jump out of the phone to accept the puppet-master’s gracious invitation: “Once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and show you a real good time!”

By the time that conversation took place, the public sector unions had already agreed to meet the governor’s financial demands – but it was clear he was out to take no prisoners. Give up your collective bargaining rights or else!

The trouble with the governor, and with far too many elected officials, is that they weren’t paying attention when American history was being taught to them in grade school. Or they are memory-challenged. Or they just don’t give a damn and want to obliterate their country’s history and substitute their own.

What American history tells us is that without unions, the captains of industry would have rolled over working people like a Thompson CAT. Without unions, we would never have had a middle class in America. And without a middle class, who would have campaigned so tirelessly for so long for better schools, better teachers, better health care, better everything.

When conservatives talk about “family values,” isn’t this what they should be talking about?

The past half-century has witnessed the sharp decline in organized labor, with corporate ownership-management waging an unrelenting campaign to convince working Americans that they’d do so much better if American industry could be more competitive with the rest if the world, and that wouldn’t ever happen if unions were dictating outrageously exorbitant wages and benefits.

Dictating? Maybe Governor Scott Walker doesn’t understand all this, but it was Collective Bargaining that was responsible for wage and benefit restraints from both unions and ownership. Among other benefits, collective bargaining prevented countless strikes.

And, my old boss from JFK days, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce Jack Behrman, reminds me that the National Labor Relations Board was set up in the 1930s to support collective bargaining. It was critical in World War Two in moderating labor's wage demands to prevent inflation, which restriction led the NLRB to permit bargaining for other benefits; these led to donations by companies to health insurance and was the beginning of national health insurance.

But shouldn’t we fault the American labor movement for not doing a better job of educating union members so that they wouldn’t vote against their own economic self-interests and remain quiet while their elected representatives legislated against those very same interests?

Where was the outcry from labor when President Obama acceded to demands to continue George W. Bush’s upper-class tax cut as the Republicans’ price for not raising taxes on ordinary working Americans? It was largely AWOL. And ineffectual.

So, fault the unions? You bet. We should be mad as hell. Just as we should be mad as hell at some of the excesses of the union movement. But in the Great Crash of 2008, it was banks and other corporations who created our economic nightmare. Was our response to throw banks and other corporations under the bus? To abolish them altogether? No, in fact, it was to bail them out.

In his faux phone talk with Charles Koch, it was clear that closing his state’s fiscal gap was a secondary objective for Governor Walker. His primary goal was to break the unions. It had to be, since these teachers, firefighters, nurses and other first responders have already said they would go along with the governor and make the sacrifices necessary to do their part to help close the state’s $6.3 billion budget deficit.

But Governor Walker is still saying he has the same $3.6 billion budget deficit to balance. It was like the union response never happened!

And, by the way, I wonder if the Governor was thinking of that gap when, shortly after taking office, he handed the wealthiest people in his state a generous tax cut.
Does the Governor really expect us to believe that it is public service unions alone that are responsible for that $6.3 billion budget gap?

If he believes that, I have a terrific bridge to sell him.

There are many in Wisconsin who don’t believe the Governor’s budget gap is real. One of them is the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office, which concluded that “Wisconsin isn’t even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.”

And Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future, a public interest think tank, says, “Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

But Messrs. Koch and Walker aren’t listening to Jack Norman. I’m sure Mr. Koch is just tickled pink with how things are going and is keeping busy making preparations to fly Mr. Walker to “Cali and show you a real good time.”

The Constitution: Egypt’s Job One

By William Fisher

Eleven days before he finally resigned, Hosni Mubarak may have had a chance to reverse his fortunes. Suddenly filled with a spirit of peace-making and reconciliation, the president offered up a smorgasbord of “reforms” he promised to make.

Among them was amending several articles of the Egyptian Constitution. Calls for these amendments had been going on for years. So central were they to the political well-being of the Egyptian people, that foreign powers – principally the United States –had intervened privately and publicly -- to persuade its most dependable Middle East ally to actually get something done.

But it was too late. The crowd in Tahrir Square didn’t believe their President. They had heard it all before. Mubarak was through.

So, days later, the task of re-writing the Constitutional amendments fell to a committee appointed by the Military Panel now governing Egypt.

Why is this important? Because over the years, the Mubarak regime created amendments to the Constitution. Their purpose was to make it virtually impossible to become a candidate, become a recognized political party, and have competent and independent monitoring of all elections.

Writing these new Constitutional articles is a modest assignment. The committee is not mandated to rewrite the entire Constitution; that may come later. But the Committee’s work is nonetheless critical. For it will be addressing the articles that, more than any others, have promulgated one-man rule in Egypt, kept the opposition from forming legal political parties, and thus effectively marginalized all candidates not named Mubarak.

The committee will work to be responsive to the leaders of the Tahrir Square opposition. They want the constitutional changes to reflect clearer separation of powers, strengthening of an independent judiciary, and less power for the president. That won’t all happen by writing a few amendments, but it’s a start.

And unless the committee finishes its work and the public votes ‘yes’ in a scheduled April referendum, it will be impossible to hold a presidential election in November.

Here, with thanks to Reuters, are the Articles the Committee is working on:

Article 77 of the suspended constitution allowed the president to seek re-election indefinitely. After specifying the length of the president’s term, the article says he “may be re-elected for other successive terms.”

The term of the Presidency is six Gregorian years starting from the date of the announcement of the result of the plebiscite that is used to decide the winner. The opposition has frequently called for a two-term limit on the president. This is a customary practice ion many democratic countries.

Article 88 cancelled the direct supervision of elections by the judiciary. Replacing it in 1977 was the Supreme Electoral Commission, of which the opposition has been widely critical for its lack of independence. Parliamentary elections were largely controlled by the Ministry of Interior.

The opposition has always called for constitutional changes to deter election rigging, a widespread practice for many decades. Supervision of selections by the relatively clean-handed judiciary was seen by the opposition as a deterrent to vote rigging. This practice has resulted in election results that were patently fraudulent and which earned Egypt the disrespect of many of its most important allies.

Article 93 dictates that the eligibility of its members can be decided only the People’s Assembly. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) majority has used this article to ignore court rulings invalidating election results.

Article 179, which will be eliminated, allowed the president to refer any terror related case to any judicial body, which gave him the right to use
military courts.

Article 189 says the president can ask parliament to approve an amendment or parliament can propose its own amendments. But all amendments must be approved in a referendum.

Heading the Committee is retired judge Tareq al-Bishry, reputedly respected in legal circles for his independent views. Marwa Al-A'sar of Egypt’s Daily News reports that Al-Bishry has been a strong supporter of an independent judiciary, though legal experts have said the Egyptian judiciary was subjected to increasing political meddling during Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Many in the opposition are voicing criticism of their new military bosses for not acting quickly to lift the so-called Emergency Law, which has been in effect continuously, with one brief hiatus, for thirty years. The emergency powers were implemented in 1981, after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

Mubarak made numerous promises to repeal these laws, but never followed through. In the last few years, the Mubarak regime introduced a set of 34 new constitutional articles, meant to be a substitute for the emergency laws.
But Mubarak’s critics say the amendments would have enabled a replacement of emergency laws with something just as authoritarian - but permanent.

The 34 new articles were approved by a vote in parliament, which was dominated by members of the ruling National Democratic Party. They would have written into permanent law emergency-style powers that, according Amnesty International, would have been used to violate human rights.

A week later they were put to a popular vote. Government officials said they were approved by more than three-quarters of voters, although the turnout was low - 27% according to official figures, much lower by other independent groups.

The opposition, led by independent supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, boycotted the vote, saying the lightening referendum did not give them a chance to mount a proper "No" campaign.

The 34 new articles never became part of the Constitution.

But, in whatever form, the emergency laws have been used to trash the human rights of thousands of people who found themselves in conflict with the police and the security services. Capricious detentions. Incommunicado imprisonment. Torture. Police impunity. Denial of legal and family visits. Deaths in detention.
It is clear that democracy cannot flourish when laws like these are on the books and are being widely used. So hopefully the new military leaders will lift the emergency laws even before the April referendum.

But that moment is down the road a bit.

The first order of business now is the composition of four or five constitutional articles. And, even at this early stage, the hand-over of the rewriting to a committee has not gone without criticism. Thirty-one human rights organizations have criticized the amendment committee constituted by the military.

Rights groups say that committee membership is tilted toward particular ideologies, that it includes former Mubarak officials, and that it is a male-only group, despite the presence of many qualified women.

The organizations also charged that, in 2005 and 2007, some committee members belonged to legislation committees under the former regime, where they helped prepare flawed legislation and constitutional amendments.

The Rights groups also said that the committee lacked constitutional law experts who were independent and trusted by the public. Nor did it
reflect Egypt's political and social diversity, they declared.

They said it looked like a coalition between members of the former regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Michele Dunne, a senior Middle East analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Truthout that the drafting committee has adopted “a very fast process.” But she adds, “We should also bear in mind that the articles to be amended were very controversial and lawyers and NGOs had already done a lot of spade work on how they should be amended, so perhaps some of that work will be used now.”

But even if the committee completes its work on time and an April referendum overwhelmingly approves the new constitutional articles, the new Egypt will have simply taken another of many baby steps toward democracy.

The Emergency Law must be addressed. Some new rules will have to be written regarding Parliamentary elections and Parliamentary power. Someone or some body is sooner or later going to have to take a look at the opaque web of business and economic interests spun by the military’s crony-capitalism . The issue of corruption probably does not require any new laws, rather the implementation of laws already on the books.

The former Mubarak ministers now charged with corruption were charged as a last-gasp distraction by Mubarak. Their guilt or innocence will be decided by a court, but there is nothing to suggest that they would have been charged with anything at any time absent the Mubarak crisis.

How much of such an agenda the military will welcome with open arms is questionable. Every senior military man now on the ruling council owes his appointment – and in many case, his prosperity -- to Mubarak.

Arguably, the most important next step for Egypt beyond amending the constitution, is the emergence of a leader. Many in the country are calling for a leader capable of exercising “adult supervision” over the incredibly diverse souls who slept in Tahrir Square. Just as many others are saying that only the youth of the country can carry the spirit of the uprising from Tahrir Square into the Presidential Palace.

Notes of caution have been delivered to the folks in the Square by thousands of commentators inside and outside Egypt. They have been cautioned about euphoria. They have been told that “democracy is not a plan.” They have been warned about faux leaders, about running too fast, about trying to get everything absolutely perfect.

That’s not possible, and is it undisputed that these young people and their elders are going to make mistakes along the way. Expect them and undoing them can be easier.

And follow the advice of Rami Khoury, Lebanese-born, American-educated journalist and policy wonk:

“It takes time and energy to re-legitimize an entire national governance system and power structure that have been criminalized, privatized, monopolized and militarized by small groups of petty autocrats and thieving families.

“Tunisia and Egypt are the first to embark on this historic journey, and other Arabs will soon follow, because most Arab countries suffer the same deficiencies that have been exposed for all to see in Egypt.

“Make no mistake about it, we are witnessing an epic, historic moment of the birth of concepts that have long been denied to ordinary Arabs: the right to define ourselves and our governments, to assert our national values, to shape our governance systems, and to engage with each other and the rest of the world as free human beings, with rights that will not be denied forever.”