Rat Purifiers of Libya

In Foreign Policy, Sean Kane argues that the situation in Libya isn’t as fractius as it seems. Yes, there are plenty of disputes. But they tend to be local, continuations of long-standing rivalries. Generally, the mood is oddly content:

Eight months after the brutal death of Qaddafi marked the end of the civil conflict that followed Libya’s popular uprising, support for the regime change appears to have if anything grown. Even if some of this backing falls into the “everyone loves a winner” category, a full 97 percent of Libyans surveyed by Oxford Research International in January thought the revolution was absolutely or somewhat right.

Kane also tells the sotry of the “Rat Purifiers”, as a demonstration of Libyan unpleasantness without national consequences:

The central actor in the drama was a memorably named revolutionary militia called Purifying the Tyrant’s Rats Brigade that attempted to “liberate” 300 cars from a farm outside of the city….

A rolling car chase around town ensued between the Rat Purifiers and other revolutionary brigades that now make up Benghazi police. The show lasted from late afternoon until the early morning hours and was punctuated by frequent and escalating salvos of shooting, including the use of heavy caliber anti-aircraft guns. The net result of all this sturm und drang was exactly two persons injured…by stab wounds. Benghazi’s revolutionaries either have preposterous aim or were not actually trying to hit each other.

But, howeve you spin it, you can’t ignore the way in which Libyan cities are turning against the centre.

Benghazi has recently birthed a proto-federalism movement advocating for its own autonomous region. Misrata meanwhile holds the ministry of interior. It is sometimes characterized by its critics as a virtual city-state and its brigades police large swathes of the center of the country. Zintan’s revolutionary prize was the ministry of defense. Its fighters are deployed around the country at key infrastructure sites

Raids on Russian activists

Reuters reports on government raids on opposition activists. They focus on Ksenia Sobchak:

Putin’s critics say he is doing his best to follow tradition.

“I never thought we would return to such repression in this country,” [said socialite-turned-activist] Sobchak, whose late father, a mayor of St. Petersburg, gave Putin a start in politics two decades ago and was one of the liberal politicians credited with advancing democracy in Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

She said investigators forced her to read intimate letters out loud and “didn’t even let me get dressed for some time” after she was roused from sleep and answered the door.

“They would not let me go to the bathroom alone,” Sobchak said on Ekho Moskvy radio. “There was not even a woman there, I had to do this in front of man in a mask with machinegun.”

Sobchak is a rough Russian equivalent of Paris Hilton — reality TV host, fashion designer, target of lust and envy. So there’s a sheen of titillation helping the news to spread, but below that is pretty transparent intimidation of activists. According to the Moscow Times:

The round of questioning began with surprise raids Monday morning at the homes of several leading opposition figures and their relatives. They were all summoned to appear for questioning early Tuesday, forcing them to miss a highly anticipated, large-scale rally in Moscow.

It’s not the worst treatment of politicians in Russia, and there doubtless exist respectable-sounding legal justifications. Still, not particulaly cheery news.

Micro-credit suicides

Until today, I hadn’t heard of the supporting role which micro-credit played in the revolution in Tunisia. But one of the suicides which sparked the revolution was of a certain Rami Al-Abboudi, under the burden of debt from a micro-credit progamme.

An article in

Le Monde Diplomatique

, trying too hard to prove a point, even argues that:

The wave of suicides that led up to the rebellion was not symbolic politics, as is often implied in western media, but the desperate actions of young men in bottomless debt.

I wouldn’t go that far. Al-Abboudi’s suicide was a tragic footnote, mostly ignored, and debt figured only trivially in public discourse.

Still, the boundary between micro-credit providers and loan sharks is delimited in goodwill and spin. Debtors’ suicide is a classic theme; why should micro-debtors be any different?

Micro-credit suicides have been reported in Bangladesh, while in India it’s been described as an epidemic:

More than 80 people have taken their own lives in the last few months after defaulting on micro-loans, according to the government.

Mylaram Kallava, 45, hanged herself from the ceiling of her mud hut in the neighbouring village of Ghanapur after she defaulted on four micro-loans amounting to $840.

The loans were taken to pay for medical treatment for her 17-year-old daughter’s appendicitis and her eldest daughter’s pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage.

The nearest government hospitals were more than 70km (45 miles) away, forcing Mrs Kallava to seek private treatment which was well beyond her means.

Libyan elections

Until yesterday, the Libyan government had maintained the fiction that a national election was scheduled for next Tuesday. They have finally admitted the obvious: having not yet even arranged a list of candidates, it will have to be postponed. Officially only by a fortnight, though the odds of meeting the new July 7th date seem low.

Yesterday’s Observer carried a long article on Libya, before the postponement had been admitted. For them, the problems result from the incompetence of the NTC, in contrast to regional power centres which are getting on with things by themselves:

Misrata held its own city elections in February, the first anywhere in Libya for four decades, and the new council is now busy organising the police, army, education and health services.

And that is the problem. The price of this success has been a divorce from a central government. “We don’t want to be independent, we want Libya to be like us,”

In MERIP, Nicolas Pelham has a different perspective. It is the


s, the armed rebels, who are clinging to military force and the power of patronage, resenting any democratic encroachment on that:

While the militiamen flaunt their might, they seem less confident of public support. No one at the swashbucklers’ Congress mentioned the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 19, as the means of being catapulted to power. Rather, for many the new assembly threatens to transfer authority away from those who “paid the price of the revolution” to elected representatives. “They are afraid that an elected government will limit their voice,” says Milad al-Hawti, a recruit to the Benghazi branch of the Supreme Security Commission. If the thuwwar are to make a bid for power, their window of opportunity is now, while the NTC — with its less than solid legitimacy — still holds the constitutional reins.

Storm Chair

Today I went to the V&A, one of those obvious London tourist attractions that, living here, I’ve never before got round to visiting. Their current exhibition on British design is pleasant enough, if a bit too broadly themed to be really captivating.

All is forgiven, though, because it contained this wonderful chair:

It’s hand-made by Stephen Richards. He calls it the ‘Storm Chair’, for obvious reason. It feels like some scrapyard miracle, as though wooden offcuts of wood have somehow found coherent form.

It’s a shame, though, for this to be a one-off. This should be the product of a genetic algorithm crossed with a CAD program. Tell it to evolve a chair, made from notched sticks of varying lengths, with the requirement to avoid regularity and parallel lines. You’d get not one chair but thousands, evolving towards the chaotic perfection of the storm chair. Tool up a workshop to turn the designs into reality. The carpenter arrives one morning to find a pile of numbered, notched, pieces of wood, and beside it a printout with instructions. She finishes it, only to find the process repeated with a slightly different chair. Lather, rinse, repeat.


I’ve not been paying enough attention to the student protests in Quebec. There’s an overview at The Disorder of Things. It’s about tuition fees, the right to protest and an attempt to bring down the traditionally-strong student unions:

downtown Montreal has been plunged into an actual state of exception, warranting the full force of the law (send the tape to Agamben). Very worryingly, the authorities had recourse to anti-terror legislation to prosecute four students who detonated smoke bombs in the Montreal Subway a few weeks ago and the police used their newly-found discretionary power in the application of an ancient municipal rule last night, which resulted in the arrest of over 500 people, who were fined 600 bucks each (somebody’s got to pay for all that overtime).

The author insists that most of the politics here is specific to Quebec, though some of his commentary is much more generally applicable:

The strike has also sparked a wave of left romanticism, which, for someone steeped in the tradition of radical doubt, sits somewhere in between the comical and the genuinely inspirational. I admit I’ve been forced to reconsider the power of an ironic moustache versus good old street protest. I think that the current generation of students, equipped as it is with a more sophisticated understanding of power, will nonetheless try and reclaim the terms of political discourse instead of spending its time deconstructing them. Words like democracy, equality, rights and freedom seem to have a less hollow ring than before in various parts of the world. Amongst the Quebecois urban youth, there is a genuine sense that signifiers like “democracy” and “fairness” have been totality baffled by the current elite and by several decades of persistent neoliberal admonishing.

Princelings behaving badly

One fairly certain prediction for the future, is that in the next couple of decades we’ll see many more stories of princelings behaving badly.

China’s elite have money, and a reasonable number are sending their sons and daughters abroad. Even at home, the puritan work ethic of the parents must produce a rebellion of some kind. Whether that emerges as culture, gambling or boozing depends on the child.

B&T picks out a mid-level case of this from a report in Le Monde Diplomatique. Children of Chinese officials go on gambling jaunts to Kaichin, a breakaway province of Burma making a bid for independence. Apparently Laiza, its main town, is filled with casinos targetting Chinese:

“Children of Chinese officials became a problem,” said a [Kachin Independence Organization] official. “They borrow money from the [casino] owner to gamble, pay after a phone call to their parents. When parents stop sending money, we keep them in the hotel until parents pay up.” Keeping them is not kidnapping: “They get food and housing, they just can’t leave. We make a lot of money.”

The full story is interesting, showing China’s policy of non-interference being put to the test:

Chinese infrastructure projects in Burma — pipeline, railway line and dam construction projects — depend on peace in Kachin State. Two pipelines are expected to transport 12bn cubic metres of gas and 22m tons of oil a year from two Chinese-built ports near Kyaupkyu in the Bay of Bengal to China’s energy-hungry central provinces.

Facebok privacy in a picture

Who can see your Facebook content, if you keep to the default privacy settings? In 2010, visualization expert Matt McKeon tried to display this, showing how the privacy settings had loosened over time, and exposed your life to ever-wider groups of people.

He plotted groups of people as concentric circles, from the most intimate (you) in the centre, out to the whole world at the end. Spokes represented types of content (name, photos…), and a segment was colored blue when a group of people could see that content by default.

Thus as Facebook loosens its privacy settings, the circle turns blue and your life becomes open to the world.

All this is now two years out of date. I hate to think how much bluer the circle has become in the intervening time.


From Sheila O’Malley, a depressing picture of Marilyn Monroe — or rather, of her position in the world:

Many of these movies were interested in demeaning or humiliating her, punishing her for the fact that she elicited desirous feelings in men. The Seven Year Itch, while mostly famous today for the skirt-blowing-up scene, is a nasty piece of work which puts Monroe in the unenviable position of being portrayed as a circus freak of sex appeal. Tom Ewell plays her ogling downstairs neighbor, and the way he views her shows the attempt to turn her sexiness into something dirty and lewd. She is so “hot” that she has to keep her underwear in the freezer.

O’Malley, though, has her usual admiration for actors who bury their problems under fanatically workaholic commitment to getting the job done:

It is commonly known that Monroe was victimized and abandoned as a child, leaving her with an abyss of need inside of her, but she took that victimization and turned it into a weapon and a strength. As an actress, she did not hide her need for love; instead she willingly let it flood out of her eyes into the camera and into the eyes of her co-stars in a way that is still startling to witness today

Olympic branding police

I always enjoy seeing specialist, professional media outflank the mainstream, and agree with the angry ranters. Much of my joy in reading the Financial Times, for example, comes from seeing them offer critiques of markets and capitalism which the Guardian would flinch from publishing.

Case in point: Australian marketing magainz B&T rips into the Olympics. They describe a photoshoot with Sally Gunnell, interrupted by fanatical brand policing by the Olympic organizing committee:

Raising the national flag over her shoulders was deemed to be too reminiscent of Gunnell’s triumphant gesture after winning the 1992 400m Hurdles Olympic Gold for Great Britain in Barcelona. The photoshoot was halted, the Union Jack removed and Gunnell forced to change from her white tracksuit deemed too reminiscent of the British national strip and into a more acceptable orange T-shirt.