Interview by Kourosh Ziabari, 6 March 2011
George Katsiaficas is a renowned university professor, sociologist, author and activist. He is a visiting American Professor of Humanities and Sociology at Chonnam National University, Gwangju, South Korea where he teaches and does research on the 1980s and 1990s East Asian uprisings.
Katsiaficas has a Ph.D. of sociology from the University of California, San Diego. Since 1990, he has taught sociology at the Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. During the period between 2006 and 2008, he was an Associate in Research at the Harvard University and Korea Institute.
He specializes in social movements, Asian politics, the U.S. foreign policy, comparative and historical studies and has written numerous books in these fields.
In 2003, he won the American Political Science Association’s Special Award for Outstanding Service and in 2008, received the Fulbright Senior Scholar Research Fellowship.
Among his major books are “The Battle of Seattle” by the New York’s Soft Skull Press, “Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party” by New York’s Routledge Press and “South Korean Democracy: Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising” by London’s Routledge Press.
What follows is the complete text of interview with Dr. George Katsiaficas on the recent uprising in the Arab world, its impacts on the international developments and its implications for the United States and its European allies.
Kourosh Ziabari: After Tunisia and Egypt in which the revolutionary forces and people on the ground succeeded in ousting the U.S.-backed puppets, several other Arab nations joined them and staged massive street demonstrations to call for civil liberties, improved living conditions, freedom and democratic governments. Now the whole Arab world is in a state of turmoil and unrest and the U.S.-backed dictators are facing the bitter reality that their autocracies are about to fail and collapse. What factors led to the extension of anti-government protests to the whole Arab world? Can we interpret this collective uprising a result of the explosion of strong pan-Arabist sentiments?
George Katsiaficas: No one could have predicted that the suicide of a vegetable vendor in rural Tunisia would unleash long pent-up frustrations on such a scale. If we take a long historical view, the Arab world went into a steep decline after Europeans discovered how to round Africa and established direct trade with the East. While oil has provided a huge stimulus for recovery in the 20th century, its effects have been drastically mitigated by elite corruption. The Arab people are finally awakening from a long slumber. The masses of ordinary Arabs today know in their hearts that they are more intelligent than their rulers. They know that they could all live better lives if they could get rid of the corrupt and often stupid elites trampling on their freedoms and hogging the money that rightfully belongs to everybody.
The phenomenon of uprisings spreading from place to another and drawing in ever more sectors of the population is one that I first uncovered when I studied the global movement of 1968. Unlike armed insurrections of the early part of the 20th century, the New Left involved a rapid proliferation of popular unarmed revolts—historically a new phenomenon. As I pulled together my empirical studies, I was stunned by the spontaneous spread of revolutionary aspirations in a chain reaction of uprisings and the massive occupation of public space—the sudden entry into history of millions of ordinary people who acted in a unified fashion, intuitively believing that they could change the direction of their society. Although they were not united by any centralized organization or even loosely tied together by any coordinating body, everyone was inspired by the heroic struggle of Vietnam. All over the world—from Paris to Prague, Chicago to Mexico City, and Dhaka to Beijing—people’s revolutionary aspirations and actions were not only synchronized, but they were also remarkably similar to each other in their international solidarity and desire for self-government.
After analyzing the proliferation of the global movement, especially the strikes of May 1968 in France and May 1970 in the US, I coined the term the “eros effect” to explain the rapid emergence of global solidarity and love. From my case studies, I came to understand how in moments of the eros effect, universal interests become generalized at the same time as the dominant values of society are negated (such as national chauvinism, hierarchy, and individualism). At that time, for example, opinion polls consistently showed that Ho Chi-minh was more popular than Richard Nixon on American college campuses. See The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston: South End Press, 1987.)
At first glance, the current revolt appears to be confined to the Arab world, but in fact, it has already had a much wider effect: Gabon, Iran, and China have all felt the tremors from the rising in Egypt. Even workers in Wisconsin, who are fighting cutbacks in their standard of living, expressed admiration for, and inspiration from, the Egyptian uprising. Certainly pan-Arab sentiments are a driving force, yet they are not essential. People feel in their bones that change is possible—and not only in the Arab world.
KZ: Many Iranians believe that the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt have been inspired by Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. They compare the overthrowing of U.S.-backed Mubarak and Ben Ali to the dissolution of Mohammad Reza Shah’s government which was unconditionally supported by the United States and its European allies. Do you find such a relationship between these revolutions which took place during an interval of 32 years?
GK: Revolutions and popular uprisings have unexpected results—and not necessarily immediate ones. Even generations later, people’s memories and psyches assimilate lessons from previous eaves of struggles. The courage of Iranians in 1979, their withstanding of ferocious repression by the Shah and his forces, was evident for people all over the world, and inspired Haitians and Filipinos to overthrow their dictators. In 1987, I wrote that, “In the epoch after 1968, popular movements have internalized the New Left tactic of the occupation of public space as means of social transformation, and this tactic’s international diffusion led to the downfall of the Shah, Duvalier, and Marcos…the significance of the eros effect and the importance of synchronized world-historical movements will only increase.”
KZ: In your recent article, you’ve compared the new Middle East revolutions to the Korea’s 1987 June Uprising when after 19 consecutive days of massive street demonstrations, people could finally bring down the 26-year autonomy of military forces and hold direct presidential elections. In what ways are these movements similar to each other?
GK: In both cases, people basically fought with bare hands against mighty police forces and defeated them. Thousands of ordinary citizens claimed the right to remain together in public and refused to go home when ordered to do so. Small informal leadership circles emerged in the course of popular struggles, drawn initially from extant activist circles but also porous enough to admit many newcomers from a variety of constituencies. Most significantly, both revolts were quickly ended by the peaceful retirement of the incumbent president and vague promises made by the military—which in both cases remained in power as the uprising subsided. It took South Koreans another five years of struggle before the first civilian was elected president, and it took until 1996 to put the previous dictators in prison. While one agreed to the order to return some US$300 million that he had stolen from the public, Chun Doo-hwan famously testified he had less than $100 to his name—thereby losing his honor but keeping a fortune of perhaps $700 million. Both sums pale in comparison to the estimated fortune amassed by Mubarek. It remains to be seen how much of the Mubarek family holdings will be recovered—or, more importantly, whether or not Egypt will move toward substantive democracy. The longer people adopt a “wait and see” attitude, the less chance there is of change. Millennia of pharonic rule and dictatorships are not easily undone.
KZ: The Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is said to have deposited $90 billion in Italian and other European banks. Since 1990s, the European states moved towards normalizing their ties with the dictator and supported him both politically and financially. Now, these Western states with which the Libyan dictator was once a close friend are calling for a unified international action against him. The old friend has now become a bitter enemy. Isn’t this an exercise of double standards by the Western governments?
GK: This double standard is nothing new. The US has a long history of riding on the backs of dictators in Third World countries and then tossing them away like a used car once they have outlived their usefulness. Longtime Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos was ousted with US approval in 1986; the CIA maintained real time connection to the rebels and provided them with invaluable intelligence information. Much earlier, in 1961, Rafael Trujillo, who had ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist for decades, was assassinated. Many people suspect the CIA provided the assassins with the weapons they used. In 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had faithfully served US interests in South Vietnam from 1956 to 1963, was overthrown in a military coup about which the US had advance knowledge, and US refusal to assist him led to his assassination. Many people believe long-time US ally Park Chung-hee, ruler of South Korea from 1961 to 1979, was killed with advance US approval.
KZ: The media have reported that the mercenaries of Colonel Gaddafi have so far killed more than 6,000 protesters in Tripoli and other cities of Libya. What’s your prediction for the political future of Libya? Gaddafi has vowed to remain in power and “die as a martyr”; however, the protesters, despite the large-scale crackdown by the government haven’t retracted from their stance and are still calling for the ouster of the old dictator. What will be the outcome of these tumultuous clashes in Libya? Will the revolution finally end in the overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi?
GZ: That is a life and death question for thousands of Libyans. It is too early for us to tell whether or not the armed revolt will prevail. With the US and NATO already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Joints Chiefs are resisting the call by conservatives here to implement a no-fly zone and come to the assistance of the rebels. We should not forget that Gaddafi has played ball with the US in recent years, and he is certainly calling in every favor he is owed. In 1980, the US encouraged Korean General Chun Doo-hwan to suppress the democratic popular uprising in Gwangju. There can be no doubt that it may well stand by and watch as Gaddafi crushes those opposed to his rule.
KZ: Prof. Rashid Khalidi believes that the recent uprisings in the Arab countries have transformed and changed the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Muslim world. The people that were once introduced as fanatic terrorists and extremists are now being called freemen who sacrifice their lives for the sake of achieving freedom and liberty. Do you agree with this viewpoint? Has the communal uprising of the Arab world changed the public’s viewpoint regarding the Arabs and Muslims?
GK: In my view, US public opinion has not really shifted much. The self-organization of armed resistance to Gaddafi astounds American journalists. American young people note with amusement that soccer and dating web sites were used by young Libyans to organize their uprising, but my students complain that they feel burdened by the region’s peoples looking to the US for help.
I suspect the change in Arabs’ own self-understanding is far more significant. For too long, the role of public opinion and the importance of ordinary people has been disregarded in the region, especially by insurgencies, which instead of seeking to stimulate popular movements and raise consciousness, instead pinned their hopes on elites or organized armed commando actions. The first and most influential shift occurred with the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s. The people’s uprising was ruthlessly crushed—remember Yitzhak Rabin’s orders to break bones of unarmed children—but the spirit of popular resistance was kindled throughout the region.
KZ: We already know that the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are among the major human rights violators in the world; however, the United States and its European cronies who frequently boast of their concerns about the preservation of human rights and freedom have been long indifferent to the persecution of political activists, incarceration of journalists and bloggers and other abuses of human rights in these countries. On the other hand, the superpowers have always employed the excuse of human rights for pressuring the independent and non-aligned nations such as Iran. What do you think about this dualistic approach?
GZ: From the very beginning, US human rights policy has been self-serving and duplicitous. In the name of democracy and enlightenment, the US exterminated millions of Native Americans. The US government broke nearly every treaty it ever signed with native peoples, a sad history known as the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” It would be laughable if it were not so tragic that a country based upon enslavement and murder of millions of Africans and genocide against Native Americans, a country that killed at least three million Koreans and more than two million Indochinese, a country that today is massacring thousands more in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, could seek to instruct anyone on “human rights.” Yet it is precisely a self-righteous belief in American freedom and superiority that motivates continuing genocide.
President Jimmy Carter, with whom the modern version of human rights policy is thought to originate, collaborated with Indonesian generals in the bloody invasion of East Timor. Carter approved the suppression of the Gwangju Uprising at the cost of hundreds of lives. Years later, when evidence of his actions could be assembled, a Peoples Tribunal found Carter and 7 other high US officials guilty of “crimes against humanity for violation of the civil rights of the people of Gwangju.” Five months afterwards, Carter was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The hypocrisy continues unabated. Obama enlarges the war in Afghanistan and attacks Pakistan, and he, too, is awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Should we be surprised that an award named after the inventor of dynamite provides international legitimation of Western imperialism and aggression?
KZ: As my final question, what’s your prediction for the future of Arab countries which have been engulfed by the waves of popular upsurge in the recent weeks? Will the autocratic regimes of the Persian Gulf region finally yield to the demands of the protesting revolutionaries?
Unfortunately, my prognosis is that the region will continue to be burdened by corrupt elites, but also that existing rulers will have to permit larger circles of economic innovators to emerge and grant people a wider range of civil liberties. With a population of 90 million, Egypt barely managed to manufacture what Costa Rica (population 900,000) could produce. Historically speaking, uprisings have opened the doors to subsequent economic development, as we readily see today in East Asia.
I suspect that substantive democracy in the Arab world (nor practically anywhere else for that matter) is not in the cards—at least for now. Elections may well be permitted but, as in the US, candidates will reflect the dominant parties, not any meaningful alternative. Military spending will continue to be lavish and result in enormous waste of resources. Militarized nation-states armed with weapons of mass destruction, although widely understood as historical anachronisms, will continue to reign supreme. Ordinary people’s dreams of a world at peace reveals a wisdom that far surpasses their rulers’ capacity to think, yet the resultant contradiction requires a globally synchronized effort to result in real change.
In my view, the synchronicity of revolts and occupation of public space that began in 1968 is continually widening its circles. Besides the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, we saw a wave of uprisings after Gwangju that spread in six years from 1986 to 1992 through the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Thailand. This most recent emergence of the eros effect in the Arab world indicates that popular movements are building to an even more intense climax, to a global uprising that might finally bring an end to the scandalous control of humanity’s collective wealth by a handful of billionaires.