2011 - %3, January

Egypt in Real Time

| Sun Jan. 30, 2011 11:26 PM EST

I've been away all weekend or else I would have mentioned this earlier, but Nick Baumann has been following the events in Egypt for the past several days and posting a continuous stream of updates and links to some of the best posts on the subject. You can see it here. Just start at the top and scroll down, or else go straight to the bottom to get the latest updates.

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Egypt: "I Saw an Old Woman Shot in the Face"

| Sun Jan. 30, 2011 1:43 PM EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more on the situation in Egypt, check out our up-to-the-minute coverage.

"Can you imagine what it feels like to have a black cloak drawn over the country and everything is cut off?" Laura* asks me. She's stuck in her apartment in Cairo, and finally cell phones are working again, for now. I got through to her twice on Saturday, and she's been filling me in on what it's like to be a foreigner in the city. She's grateful to have phone service again, because on Friday, that means of communication had effectively vanished. "You couldn't call anyone. You couldn't access the internet; everything was just shut off."

Laura, one of my best friends, has been in Egypt for less than a month. After spending nearly two years traveling around West Africa, she was looking forward to a calmer existence in cosmopolitan Cairo, where she'd be working with refugees. Then, shortly after she moved there, the protests began and chaos erupted. When I spoke with her on Saturday, she described the scene on the ground: "I'm looking out my balcony and it's gotten to this point where police are basically gone, the military is guarding the square and certain ministries, but there are just thugs and bandits in the streets with guns, and a lot of looting is happening."

"I have a bag at the door with a passport and some water in it in case we have to run. I don't want to be alarmist, but things are deteriorating very quickly.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's attempts to suppress protesters by cutting off internet and cell phone service only seems to be making the situation worse. Thousands continue to defy the police, ignore the imposed curfew, and rally to demand that the current regime step down. And sadly, in some cases the protestors have been met with brutality. "I saw an old woman shot in the face yesterday," Laura tells me.

 Even worse, police seem to be shooting people and then beating them afterwards.

We were walking along the Kornish next to the Nile, and we saw these people on the bridge, not even protesting, just looking at what's going on. Police trucks—not military, but police, there's a distinction because they're not necessarily working together—went across the bridge and opened fire on people standing there. Then there were these plain-clothed police—that's the scariest thing, is that they've hired thugs who are dressed in normal clothes and carry canes to beat people—going up onto the bridge and taking them down off the bridge and beating them. Because if you've been shot, that's evidence you're a protester, so therefore you need to be beaten.

Laura and her friend saw a young woman who'd been grazed by a bullet caught amidst a frenzy of canes. They grabbed her and dragged her away from the mob. "We had to link arms with her and walk her through these checkpoints so she would stop being beaten," Laura explains. "It's so fucking unreal. I don't know what's going on."

On Friday afternoon, Laura and her friend made a trip to the American Embassy, just blocks away from Laura's apartment, to register in case anything happened to them. When they got there, a curfew had just been declared and they were forced to spend the night. During their stay, the Embassy came under attack, and it was rumored that a group of looters stole armored Embassy vehicles. 

Now back at her apartment in the relatively calm Garden City neighborhood, Laura can do little but peer out from her balcony at an apocalyptic city echoing with gunshots. "We keep looking outside and seeing these men walking around with sticks, and we assume they're defending the neighborhood. But no one knows who anyone is."

I talked to Laura again a little later, around 3 AM on Sunday morning, and she sounded like herself again; sense of humor intact. She said the men wandering the streets below were her neighbors on a make-shift patrol, trying to maintain order since the police had fled. "The men downstairs have swords, but they're eating yogurt," she tells me, laughing a little. "One guy on the corner has an AK-47."

Every so often, she hears tanks rambling down the Kornish, a street running parallel to the Nile about a block away. Her neighbors have moved big flowerpots in a maze-like pattern on her street so that cars won't be able to zoom through very quickly. And even though tension is high and drama continues to unfold around them, life for those not directly involved in the protests is, for now, a waiting game. The American Embassy has encouraged those with "their own means of transportation" to leave the city, but so far have ordered no emergency evacuations for US citizens.

"I have a bag at the door with a passport and some water in it in case we have to run,"  Laura tells me. "I don't want to be alarmist, but things are deteriorating very quickly. It's probably fine, probably nothing's going to happen to me. But at the same time, no one expected any of this to happen."

*Name has been changed for safety reasons. 

Happy Fred Korematsu Day

| Sun Jan. 30, 2011 12:00 PM EST

Mother Jones' guest blogger Angilee Shah is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes about globalization and politics. You can read more of her work at www.angileeshah.com.

This weekend, American civil rights activists celebrate a new icon: Fred Korematsu, the Japanese-American who resisted placement in a World War II-era internment camp. It's the first holiday in the US commemorating an Asian-American—and it's proof to some judges and civil rights activists that a new generation of Asian-American leaders can't be far behind.

Korematsu's story is an instructive one for civil rights advocates.

During World War II, fear loomed in the lives of Japanese-Americans. The United States government moved more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and immigrants from the Pacific coast to internment camps inland. Korematsu, who refused to go, was arrested and convicted for his defiance. His conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1944. Although the exclusion order was rescinded in 1945, it wasn't until the 1980s, when Korematsu reopened his case, that the courts overturned his conviction. In 1988, the United States declared Japanese American internment unjust and paid retribution to its victims and their heirs. Until his death in 2005, Korematsu himself advocated on behalf of prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay and Middle-Eastern Americans persecuted after 9/11.

Retired California judge Lillian Lim, widely considered the first female Filipino-American judge in the US, recalls the impact Korematsu's story had on her in law school. "It shows the vulnerability of people who are in minority communities," she remembers. "But it also shows how people can win vindication—even if it takes forty years." Legal rights advocate Karin Wang says that much of the Asian-American activism that began in the 70s and 80s was built on the Korematsu experience and spurred by traumatic events. The brutal 1982 murder of a Chinese-American by two Detroit auto workers in 1982 led to the creation of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center where Wang serves as vice president of programs. Four years ago, after entering semi-retirement, Lim began a campaign to teach more people about Korematsu's journey.

Last year, CA Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared January 30 to be Fred Korematsu Day. The holiday is widely considered to be the first time American public schools anywhere will officially commemorate an Asian-American icon. For civil rights activists, the recognition is a reminder to continue engaging in politics. 

A less reactionary type of political engagement is hard won, however. Janelle Wong, associate professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California, says that Asian Americans vote at the lowest rates of any minority groups in the United States.

"The biggest challenge for Asian-American voting is meeting the eligibility requirements of becoming citizens and becoming registered," Wong says. Almost 80 percent of Asian-American adults are immigrants and many live in Democratic states, giving political parties little incentive to calibrate their campaigns and registration drives. A diversity of cultures and languages also makes it challenging to engage politically with Asian-American communities.

But Wong argues that ignoring these communities is a short-sighted strategy. 2007 Census data shows that 14.9 million Americans now identify as Asian or partly Asian—a 25 percent increase from 2000. At this rate of growth, Asian Americans will make up 10 percent of the US population by 2060, according to projections by the 2008 National Asian American Survey. The 2008 survey also shows that the Asian-American vote is up for grabs; more than 50 percent are nonpartisan and identify with neither Democrats nor Republicans.

"Parties work to win the next election, but it might be wiser to lay the ground work," Wong says. "They should go after even non-citizens now to build long-term engagement."

Lim concurs. "The next big thing is when it's not a big thing that we have an Asian-American as a governor or a US Senator. I don't doubt that one day we'll have a president who is Asian-American."

Interview: Two Israelis on Joining the Protests in Egypt

| Sat Jan. 29, 2011 12:50 PM EST

As pro-democracy protests erupt across Egypt and threaten to end the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, two Israeli women are following the news with particularly personal zeal: After all, they participated in this week's demonstrations against the autocrat.

Hagar Sheizaf and Bar Rose were touring Egypt on their way to "see some mummies" at the Egyptian Museum when the first protests broke out. As they joined the ever-growing crowd—and later fled in terror from rubber bullets and water cannons— they felt "envy" for the courage, diversity, and unity they witnessed.

"For me, it was one of the scariest moments of my life," Sheizaf, 20, said in a phone interview from Israel, where she and Rose returned on Thursday. "But I felt very, very proud—if I may feel proud for the Egyptian people….It's so courageous to stand up like this. I can only hope that, in Israel, people will do the same one day." (Sheizaf and Rose are Palestinian solidarity activists.)

Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, and President Hosni Mubarak has collaborated closely with Israel and the United States on security issues. However, sympathy for the Palestinians, and rage at Israel's 43-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, runs deep in Egypt. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues frequent travel warnings that militant Islamists seek to kidnap Israeli tourists in the Sinai peninsula.

Many Israelis would consequently think Sheizaf and Rose were reckless to go to Egypt in the first place—and especially to share their Israeli nationality with the demonstrators. Yet Sheizaf and Rose dismiss these fears. Rose says, "We just said to people, 'Ok, so we are Israelis. We are from the people and our government is not representing our personal opinions.'"

One conversation about Israeli politics with three Egyptian medical students left a particularly strong impression on Sheizaf. The medical students earned about 300 Egyptian pounds per month ($51), and came to the demonstrations to protest the economic crisis and Mubarak's repressive government. When the students asked about democracy in Israel, Sheizaf told them about the Israeli parliament's decision to investigate the funding sources of Israeli human rights organizations—to which one of the students replied, "'Ah, Lieberman's law!'" (Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, is the main backer of the legislation.)

"I was really surprised that they actually know and read about the situation in Israel, and that they know the names of our politicians," Sheizaf recalls. "My experience of telling people I'm from Israel was very positive…I told lots of people I'm Israeli. I didn't get one negative response."

Since returning to Israel, Sheizaf and Rose have fretted about the safety of their Egyptian friends, co-authored a 972 Magazine article about their experiences in Egypt, and fielded skeptical questions from the Israeli media. A journalist from Israeli Army Radio opened her interview with Rose by stating matter-of-factly that it's hard to be an Israeli in Egypt.

"I just answered her that it's hard to be a human being in these demonstrations, regardless of your nationality," Rose says. "I felt real solidarity with the Egyptian people, and [the Israeli Army radio reporter] described it like I should be scared of them."

She wasn't.

The Week in Sharia: Mama Grizzly Edition

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 7:34 PM EST

Before it's too late:

  • Legislators in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Arkansas introduced proposals to ban Islamic Law from state courts, bringing the total number of states that have moved on the issue to 11. Of note: State rep. Gerald Gay, who introduced the Wyoming measure, ran for office last fall on a platform of shooting abstract theories with high-powered weaponry; the Arkansas bill, meanwhile, was sponsored by state senator Cecile Bledsoe, who you may remember as one of Sarah Palin's "Mama Grizzlies."
  • Could you be eating meat sacrificed to idols and not even know it? Our friends at WorldNetDaily raise that exact concern in an article about halal foods that reprises last year's freakout over Campbell's Soup: "It could be on your pizza without you knowing it, or at your favorite restaurant. People don't realize they could be eating meat sacrificed to idols!" Also on your pizza: Lots and lots of bugs.
  • Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who has stated previously that Islam is not a religion, told a South Florida talk show that Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) "really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established"—but he won't back down. "You've got to be able to defeat them intellectually in debate and discourse, and you just have to be able to challenge each and every one of their assertions very wisely and very forthright." You can't blink, Charlie!
  • The Temecula, California, city council gave a unanimous thumbs-up to a proposed Islamic community center in the city. Last summer, mosque opponents protested the project with dogs, because Muslims "hate dogs."
  • and finally...we missed this last week, but Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, "terror baby" whistleblower, says he wants his House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security to hold hearings on the impending threat of Sharia law. Perhaps Steve Emerson, the anti-Islam activist spurned by Rep. Peter King's radicalization hearings, will have his moment in the spotlight after all?

BP's Dispersants Slow to Disperse

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 5:31 PM EST

For MoJo environment reporter Kate Sheppard's take on the BP dispersants study, click here.

Here's a quick look at a forthcoming paper in Environmental Science and Technology on the fate of BP's dispersants. As you may recall, BP loosed ~2.1 million gallons of chemical dispersants—1.4 million gallons to the surface and 0.77 million gallons into deepwater at the wellhead—in an attempt to break the oil into small droplets.

The authors note that surface dispersants had been used and (somewhat) assessed before Deepwater Horizon, with a cautious consensus that these chemical brews might mitigate oiling on marshes and other shorelines.

But the injection of dispersants deep underwater had never been tried before, and never studied. This is what I referred to in BP's Deep Secrets as the biggest baddest field experiment of all time.

To track the deep dispersants, two of the authors—Elizabeth Kujawinski and Melissa Kido Soule—developed a new chromatographic technique to trace DOSS (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate), a component of both the Corexit formulations used by BP. The findings from three cruises in the Gulf of Mexico:

  • In May and June, DOSS was found and measured at concentrations of parts per billion at depths up to 1,200 meters/3,000 feet.
  • In September, 64 days after deepwater dispersant applications, DOSS was still found in the plume—which had traveled more than 300 kilometers/186 miles from the wellhead—and measured at concentrations of parts-per-trillion.

Although the dispersants were persistent (long-lived and widely-traveled), it's not clear if they actually dispersed or sequestered any of the oil.

Based on our observations, we cannot assess whether the dispersant application was successful in reducing the oil droplet size or in increasing the sequestration of oil in deep water. However, we can conclude that DOSS, and presumably the other Corexit components, became sequestered in deep plumes. Two or more possibilities may explain these observations. In one scenario, DOSS dissolved into the water during ascent and detrained at approximately 1100 m through partitioning with methane, water, gas hydrate, or other phases. In this case, if the DOSS dissolved completely or partitioned with natural gas, it may suggest that the dispersant was rendered unavailable to the oil and thus ineffective in dispersing the liquid oil. In a second scenario, Corexit was associated with small liquid oil droplets that were sequestered in this plume. If the DOSS was deposited in these small oil droplets, it may suggest that the chemical dispersion was highly effective. We have rejected the hypothesis that DOSS was associated with large oil droplets since their higher buoyancy would be expected to force them to travel to the surface, presumably releasing dispersant en route.

The effects of these dispersants on marine living in or migrating through the deepwater is equally ambiguous:

[F]urther tests are needed to assess stress responses of pelagic biota to oil, gas, dispersant, and associated mixtures. In particular, our study has not assessed the fates or reactivities of the nonionic surfactants and the hydrocarbon solvents present in Corexit 9500A, each of which may have unique toxicological impacts. In short, the application of this material in the deep ocean is new and unprecedented and so merits further study of pelagic macro- and microbiota at environmentally relevant Corexit concentrations and dispersant-to-oil ratios.


Here's the abstract in full:

Response actions to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill included the injection of ∼771,000 gallons (2,900,000 L) of chemical dispersant into the flow of oil near the seafloor. Prior to this incident, no deepwater applications of dispersant had been conducted, and thus no data exist on the environmental fate of dispersants in deepwater. We used ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) to identify and quantify one key ingredient of the dispersant, the anionic surfactant DOSS (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate), in the Gulf of Mexico deepwater during active flow and again after flow had ceased. Here we show that DOSS was sequestered in deepwater hydrocarbon plumes at 1000-1200 m water depth and did not intermingle with surface dispersant applications. Further, its concentration distribution was consistent with conservative transport and dilution at depth and it persisted up to 300 km from the well, 64 days after deepwater dispersant applications ceased. We conclude that DOSS was selectively associated with the oil and gas phases in the deepwater plume, yet underwent negligible, or slow, rates of biodegradation in the affected waters. These results provide important constraints on accurate modeling of the deepwater plume and critical geochemical contexts for future toxicological studies.

The paper:

Elizabeth B. Kujawinski, Melissa C. Kido Soule, David L. Valentine, Angela K. Boysen, Krista Longnecker, and Molly C. Redmond. Fate of Dispersants Associated with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. 2011. Environ. Sci. Technol. DOI: 10.1021/es103838p

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday January 28

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 3:21 PM EST

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Extra Lives: Should real life be more like video games

Survey Says: Another poll showing less than half Americans want to repeal health care.

Hold On: Self-control is linked to success, but is it innate?

Repeal, Repeat: If GOP repeals health care, what will replace it? 

Elementary: If the chemical for lethal injection becomes unavailable, death penalty may change.

Drill, Baby: Palin still loves oil as much as ever.

Death Star: Death Panels are back in the media as Republicans dismantle health care.

No EPA: Newt Gingrich is stumping, and calling for abolishment of the EPA.

Two Party: A bipartisan solution to health care is a difficult but ongoing conversation.

Up In Smoke: US DOJ won't raid marijuana dispensaries, but IRS is auditing them.

Most Wanted: Gay protester of Uganda ad calling for killing of gays has been killed.

Shaken: Deaths from earthquakes come more from unsafe buildings than other causes.

Amazon Plaintiffs to Chevron: We're Real!

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 3:07 PM EST

The long legal case against Chevron over environmental damage wrought by drilling operations in the Amazon may finally be drawing to a close, as the parties in the case this month began filing their final arguments. But Chevron has made several attempts to get the case thrown out entirely--including making claims that the plaintiffs in the case don't actually exist.

Last month, Chevron made accusations of an "elaborate forgery of plaintiffs' signatures" in the suit. When the complaint was first filed in 2003, 48 indigenous residents of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, affected by the legacy of toxic pollution left behind by Texaco (a company Chevron later acquired) signed on as plaintiffs. Chevron claims that its forensics expert has determined that 20 of those signature were forged, and that therefore the lawyers representing them in the case did not truly have consent.

Chevron vice president and general counsel R. Hewitt Pate almost sounded like an activist in Chevron's press release last month, pledging to "seek full redress against the harm that has been done in the name of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and to hold accountable all of those who have knowingly participated in this unlawful scheme." The irony, of course, is that the plaintiffs are seeking compensation for what they have described as massive environmental and human health harm caused by decades of oil extraction in the region that was never fully remediated.

Chevron says this is evidence that the suit has been "tainted with corruption from the very beginning and must be terminated." The company's lawyers filed a motion in the provincial court asking the judge to therefore declare the lawsuit "null and void."

In response, 24 of the plaintiffs involved in the case held an event this week to re-sign the documents, a symbolic effort to show that they are, in fact, real and they do have very real complaints against Chevron, namely the billions of gallons of toxic waste that they say was dumped in their Amazon communities. (The total number of plaintiffs is now down to 47; one has died since the suit was originally filed.) The lawyers for the plaintiffs say the forgery claims show that Chevron is getting "desperate" in these last-ditch efforts to get the case thrown out, rather than challenging the question at stake in the suit—whether the oil giant is indeed responsible for the alleged damage caused by its subsidiary.

"It's part of their fantasy of saying that this lawsuit doesn't really exist," Karen Hinton, spokesman for the plaintiffs, tells Mother Jones. "The only way to maneuver now is to discredit the court, the lawsuit itself, the plaintiffs and the lawyers—anyone associated with this—through various personal vilification campaigns."

The company has also sought footage from a documentary filmmaker that they believe will show misdeeds on the part of the plaintiffs.

The Ecuadorian court is supposed to rule on the case sometime before May, though it's likely that it will remain tied up in this legal wrangling for some time. If the forgeries claim is any indication, Chevron will throw every obstacle it can think of in the way of a final decision.

Friday Cat Blogging - 28 January 2011

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:57 PM EST

On the left, Inkblot is giving himself a good chin smooch after spending a few minutes gazing in rapt concentration at a nearby hummingbird. He had obviously been hoping to sprout wings and fly over for a lunchtime snack, but when that didn't happen he decided to pretend nothing had happened and curl back up in the sunshine. (Current temp here: 71 degrees.) On the right, Domino has performed her post-dinner leap into the bookshelf. I have no idea why, but both cats go crazy for a few minutes after they get fed, and this is where Domino frequently ends up. A few minutes later, though, she was snoozing away.

Downgrading America

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:45 PM EST

Karl Smith on the possibility that ratings agencies will downgrade U.S. debt from its current AAA rating:

I am [] willing to take 50 to 1 odds that President Obama doesn’t understand what a downgrading of US Treasuries would mean. He could probably trot out some line about investor confidence but what this actually meant and the significance or more to the point, lack thereof, he would not be able to explain cogently.

I can't speak for Obama, but I have a feeling that the significance would be: zero. Granted, there's symbolic importance to something like this, and on a substantive level there are certain funds that are legally prohibited from holding non-AAA debt. So fine: maybe not quite zero.

But U.S. debt is simply too big, too public, and too widely followed for ratings agencies to have much influence over it. Everyone knows what the problems with the American economy are, and no one thinks that the folks at Moody's or S&P know any more about it than anyone else. They just don't have any special expertise to offer here. A downgrade might provide an opportunity for some short-term arbitrage, but beyond that it's not clear if it would have any effect at all. It's the market that determines the price of U.S. debt, not the ratings agencies.

(The president couldn't actually say anything this cavalier, of course. He'd have to trot out some line about investor confidence and the long-term strength of the U.S. economy blah blah blah. Still, I think zero is more or less the actual correct answer.)