Interview with Shahid Bolsen
Interview with Shahid Bolsen - by Radha Stirling
2nd of December 2016
Radha: You have been writing about the political situation in Egypt now for around two years. How did you become involved and why did you decide to focus your work on Egypt?
Shahid: Well, it has been about 3 years now, actually. I have been writing ever since my release from prison. I have written about a variety of other topics, but yes, my focus has been on Egypt. It is a very important country for many reasons. The Arab Spring, the toppling of the Mubarak regime, democratic elections for the first time in its history, and then a military coup; it is a remarkable series of events in a very short period of time. The excitement and hope of the Arab Spring created a chance for real change in the country, and that spirit has persisted even under the extreme repression of the last 3 years.
I was concerned, even while still in prison, that the people would be fixated on superficial political issues, and overlook the more fundamentally critical dynamics of economic power that actually hold sway over life in Egypt. Those concerns proved to be justified. So I wanted to do whatever I could to highlight these issues; to raise the alarm on Neoliberalism and the overriding power of multinational corporations. Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi is a sort of reincarnation of Augusto Pinochet to me, and I have been writing since at least 2003 that the US would likely replicate its Latin American experience of the 1970s and 80s in the Middle East; and that is what I see happening.
Egypt is a gateway to the entire Middle East and North Africa; it is of tremendous strategic importance; so I wanted to do everything possible to support the anti-coup opposition and help Egypt reclaim the promise of democracy and independence that appeared for the first time with the Arab Spring.
Radha: What was your impression of the situation there?
Shahid: My impression was that the military regime installed by the coup was dedicated to the imposition of Neoliberal economic policy; that the coup was primarily motivated by the Egyptian army's economic interests, and that they would pursue a course that would lead Egypt into debt slavery and profound subordination to multinational corporations and foreign investors, essentially dissolving its sovereignty. I also saw that this was not something anyone seemed to notice. Opposition political parties were paying very little attention to economic issues. The "Shock Doctrine" as Naomi Klein calls it, was being implemented in Egypt quite blatantly, but no one was really aware of it. Because of the Arab Spring, there was still a revolutionary spirit and zeal which, I thought, could be mobilized to effectively oppose this agenda
Radha: You were Chief Analyst and the Anti Global Aggression Campaign. What is their main goal? What was your role there exactly?
Shahid: When I was first released from prison I needed a job. I happened to know the director of this organization from when I lived in Michigan, and he hired me to maintain their English website and to write analysis pieces for them on current events in the Muslim world. To be honest, I do not really know very much about the organization, except that it is supposed to be a sort of umbrella for local NGOs in different countries that try to organize anti-war and relief programs. As it turned out, the English website was not a priority for them, and I only continued with them for a short period.
Radha: What were you trying to achieve with your campaigning?
Shahid: Well, I don't really see that I was or am campaigning. I am writing my analysis of the situation in Egypt, trying to raise awareness and to recommend strategies for popular empowerment and democratic reform, while at the same time, trying (in Egypt) to divert the revolutionary movements away from pursuing a scenario like what happened in Syria. There are a lot of people who are calling for armed struggle, for "Jihad", for civil war, and I see this as disastrous. What is happening in Egypt, and in so many other places, is the transfer of power and authority from the State to the private sector. Logically, this should make opposition activists redirect their attention accordingly. I see the American Labor Movement as the most useful model in this scenario. This is what I have been advocating, industrial disruption and grassroots organizing of workers and consumers to pressure companies to support democracy and justice in Egypt.
Radha: You attracted a large following on social media. What were you trying to inspire your followers to do?
Shahid: The following has developed day by day over the last 3 years. I used to pay online translation services to translate my posts into Arabic, but eventually people began to volunteer. Obviously, this has enabled my writing to spread much more effectively. The page now has roughly 75,000 followers, though the actual following is difficult to gauge. The types of tactics I have recommended are all standard methods employed by the Labor Movement, Anti-Globalization activists and others. Basically, I have advocated disruption of corporate profitability and operational efficiency, without bloodshed, without violence. The aim is to increase the cost of doing business with an undemocratic regime, theoretically, so that multinational corporations will use their unparalleled influence to support the popular will.
Radha: I was watching your work from the beginning and it seemed to be inspiring your followers to act. Did you have any relationship with any groups in Egypt who were actioning your instructions?
Shahid: Not at all. In fact, no actions I have specifically suggested have ever been carried out in Egypt, and the actions which the media attributes to my supposed influence were actions I never recommended at all. The most that can be said is that some groups may possibly have taken note of my writing, and my emphasis on the importance of corporate power, and incorporated that into their own strategies in their own way. But no, I have no communication with any groups, I do not belong to any groups, and I have in fact written frequently about how group affiliation is actually restricting and counter-productive.
Radha: Are you going to continue focusing on Egypt?
Shahid: On November 11 (2016) the IMF approved a $12 billion loan to Egypt, its biggest loan ever in the region. It is a 20 year agreement. For me, this is "Game Over" for Egypt. The amount of work that the Egyptian people are going to have to do to confront the Austerity program and to reclaim their political independence and economic sovereignty, is just overwhelming at this point. There is not much left for me to say there, to be honest.
Radha: A basic google search on your name has come up with a number of results, showing that in fact, you directed Egyptians to target multinationals and were “inspiring a wave of violence” across Egypt. Reports say that you providing targeting information, addresses of companies?
Shahid: Everything that I have written has been with the objective of providing alternatives to violence, while offering strategies of resistance against the coup that could potentially advance the demands of the Arab Spring; the demands for freedom, bread, and social justice.
Multinational corporations are the most powerful non-state actors on the global scene, and certainly in Egypt.There is no doubt that they possess the economic and political power to pressure policy; far more power than the population possesses.Through my public posts, I advised the activists in Egypt to target corporations with the aim of non-violently pressuring them to democratize their influence.I suggested the names of several companies, and provided their addresses (all of which are public knowledge) , to facilitate the work of organizers and activists.I don't really see why that would be controversial.And, again, it bears repeating, no company I suggested was ever subsequently targeted in any way, so I am not sure how it can be claimed that anyone in Egypt was acting upon my instructions.
Radha: There were also reports that you were inspiring actual violence and making social media comments to the effect that loss of life is an acceptable toll. I can also see other more in depth reports that do not attribute a wave of violence to you, but rather a wave of violence against business interests. What do you make of all the press reports?
Shahid: Businesses have been targeted by terrorists for decades; whoever plans and carries out these attacks have their own rationales. It is not a new phenomenon in Egypt or anywhere else. That has nothing to do with the ideas and strategies I write about. I have always been quite explicit about avoiding bloodshed, and condemning terrorism. Simply because I write about multinational corporations (and I am certainly not alone in that), is it reasonable to attribute any sort of attack against any company to my ideas, particularly when the attack directly contradicts the tactics I advocate?
As for the quote about "a price to be paid", that was from a New York Times interview over the telephone, and it was in answer to a question about property damage, not loss of life.It is possible that this was a misunderstanding; I really don't know.
Radha: How is it that the press came to make such an error? Was there anything on your social media that was confusing?
Shahid: The media are always under pressure to produce stories under deadlines, and they tend to approach a story with a preexisting set of assumptions which they then basically try to substantiate. This causes them to often overlook facts that do not support their assumptions.
Radha: So, what you were inspiring was essentially to disrupt the profits of multinationals to force them to withdraw support for the coup?
Shahid: Yes. "Disruption without bloodshed" has always been the fundamental concept. As I said, multinational corporations have enormous power, roughly half of the world's largest economic entities are companies not states; they are unavoidably political players, either actively or by omission. We would like to see them use their influence in support of democracy and justice, rather than propping up anti-democratic regimes and human rights violators.
Radha: You condoned bombings and vandalism as well as advising measures to disrupt deliveries and supplies but I noticed that you advised that they avoided any human casualties but attacking businesses during the night?
Shahid: Yes, I do not consider property damage to be violence. I don't accept the concept that a corporate juggernaut is a human being, or that profit loss is equivalent to the loss of life. Whenever violence has occurred, I have condemned it, regardless of what the target was; and I have tried in every way possible to emphasize the illegitimacy of violence as a tactic.
Radha: So overall your message has been of non violence, but a KFC employee was killed as a result of the attacks on corporations. This event, coupled with your comments that loss of life is possible, have basically lead to the media assault on you, even though you did not order it at all?
Shahid: I never wrote about KFC at all until after it started to be targeted, and there were a number of non-violent operations before that tragic incident. When that happened, I condemned it in the strongest possible terms, and reiterated the importance of preserving people's safety. Whenever any revolutionary group in Egypt undertook any sort of action, I would write about it, assess its strategic value, and suggest alternatives or modifications that might make subsequent actions more effective. I did the same thing with the KFC actions. I have said many times that if it is not possible to target a company without endangering people's safety, then of course, it should not be targeted unless and until you could find a way to do it safely. Again, I have never had any direct contact or connection with any of these groups, and I cannot evaluate to what extent, if any, they were influenced by my ideas.
Radha: I know from my own experience how easy the press can get things wrong and the snowball effect that can have, but this error has made you almost look like the head of a violent revolt that could be seen as a terrorist group.
Shahid: Yes, but even with most of the press reports, if you actually read them, the content does not support the usually sensational headlines. No one can honestly say that I have called for or approved of violence or terrorism. Fortunately, all of my writing is public, and anyone can access it. The easiest way to de-legitimize an opposition movement, or any individual involved in such a movement, is to brand them as violent, and to label them as a terrorist. This closes the door on any real discussion.
Radha: I have reviewed the website Counter Extremism, an organisation that was designed to combat the ¨threat from extremist ideologies" and found that you have somehow been included on their Egypt analysis page. Do you think it is accurate of them to describe your work as a different type of "jihad"?
Shahid: Insofar as jihad means a struggle against non-Muslims, then no. But insofar as it means a struggle for justice, then yes. And if they are even slightly concerned about preventing violence and terrorism, and protecting people's lives and promoting security and stability, they should welcome this different type of "jihad", because it is a way of struggling for justice and democracy through peaceful means. But, of course, that organization is a money-making enterprise with extensive connections to the very corporations I criticize, so it is in their interest to brand the strategy as violent and to manufacture extremism where it does not exist.
Radha: What is clear is that this description of you seems to make statements about you that most of us would agree with, but when it is stated about you, it is to almost create a case that you are extremist. For example, they write that you have no issue with armed resistance, as through that is a bad thing, while I think that almost everyone would agree with this. Do you feel you are being targeted or created?
Shahid: Of course. I mean, the statement that armed resistance is valid, both in the religion, in reason, and in international law, is factually accurate. The United Nations upholds the right of armed resistance. This is not controversial. Imagine if there was a military coup in the United States and democracy was suspended; or in the UK, or anywhere else. And the military regime was taking dictation from a foreign sponsor. Would the American people or the British people have the right to resist through armed struggle? OK, Nato expanded the definition of occupation and colonialism to include economic domination; that is not my opinion, it is an official position of Nato. They uphold the right of Nato to intervene militarily in cases where a country has been subjugated economically by another country. Are the generals of Nato listed as extremists? It is an obvious double-standard.
Having said that, however, it is all the more inappropriate because, even though I acknowledge the right of armed resistance, I do not advocate armed resistance, so, yes, it is clearly an agenda-based misrepresentation of what I write about.
Radha: You are listed on this website with infamous terrorists like Sayyid Qutb, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hani al-Sibai and others, even though there doesn't seem to be anything that they are attributing to you. How does it feel to be listed on a website that is apparently advising governments, while lacking any sort of due diligence analysis?
Shahid: Well, first of all, Sayid Qutb was not a terrorist, he was a writer. His ideas have influenced generations of Islamists, some of whom may have veered into extremist ideas and terrorist activities; but most of whom did not.
The profound dishonesty about me is disturbing. On a personal level, obviously, I would love to be able to go home to my country and see my family. Being falsely grouped with extremists and terrorists while the ideas I advocate are actually intended to direct people away from this sort of thing, unfairly prevents me from returning to my country.But on another level, it is disturbing because, as I said, if they were genuinely concerned about security, they would not paint with such a broad brush.They are basically condemning constructive, non-violent, rational opposition strategies along with destructive, violent, irrational strategies; that is not what you do when you are trying to promote solutions.They are in the extremism-creation business, because they want to sell their software and services to the government, and they do not care about the consequences.
And what is your view on these terrorists? I have seen in your previous writing that you are in fact, very anti extremism and are more focussed on ensuring that the citizens of a country are not exploited by external vested interests. I have seen people on your facebook who have called for more violent actions and I have seen you address them and explain better forms of protest, but you do accept armed resistance and have been opposed to Sisi's appointment. Could you give our followers an overall idea of your beliefs?
I am not a fan of Sayid Qutb; I think there are a lot of mistakes in his thinking and his methodology in interpreting the religion. As for the others, Ayman Al-Zawahiri is clearly an extremist and terrorist. I don't know anything about Hani Sibai so I can't comment.
Essentially, what I am interested in is the democratization of corporate influence.
What I see is that power and authority have been transferring from the state to the private sector for decades. Consequently, the disparity between rich and poor has been growing exponentially.Wealth inequality is not just about money; it is inequality of power, of representation, of rights and freedom.That is unjust, and it is counter to the principles of my religion.It is affecting all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, and I firmly believe that the global dispossessed need to work together to confront this injustice. The obvious political remedy is genuine democracy.As a Muslim, I believe in democracy within an Islamic framework.
I think that Islamism is miserably deficient in its intellectual development, and I want to see that improve, and I hope I can contribute to that development.We are mired in many obsolete ideas and misinterpretations, in my opinion.
There is no mandatory governmental system in Islam.
There are mandatory rules (very few), and any system that upholds these rules is acceptable.The consent of the governed is fundamental, and the right of the people to participate in decisions that impact their lives is fundamental.When policy decisions are being made by un-elected, unaccountable people because of their power in the private economy; that nullifies democracy; and that is something I want to help change.
Radha: The Counter Extremism org also focussed on the Global Anti Aggression Campaign's leader saying "Bolsen claimed to be the chief analyst of the “Global Anti-Aggression Campaign,” led by radical Saudi cleric Safar al-Hawali. The implication here is that you have ties to "radicals" and "terrorists". I suppose even I deal with people who are and have been accused or associated with radicals.. certain human rights organisations and even clients. ?
Shahid: First of all, the classification of Safar al-Hawali as a radical stems from his opposition to the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and his criticism of the Saudi government. It is a classification based entirely on subjective criteria in which support for or criticism of American policy is the determining factor. As far as I know, in reality, no one involved with that organization has any links to terrorism.
Nevertheless, it is disingenuous to imply any connection between myself and any of the names listed as founders or executive board members of the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign. I never met them, never communicated with them, and as far as I know, none of them have had any involvement in the organization since its inception. But, again, my work with them was very limited and very brief.It would be a bit like saying someone who worked at Trump Plaza for a couple months has a direct connection with the President of the United States.