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Protesters Take Net Neutrality Issue To FCC Chair's Home

By Kevin Zeese, www.PopularResistance.org

Above: Protests urging net neutrality under Title II were outside of Ajit Pai’s Arlington home on May 14, 2017. Photo by Anne Meador, DC Media Group.

Pai Needs to be Personally Protested Because He Comes to the FCC With a Personal Agenda.

Despite public opinion and the facts, he intends to serve the Telecom Industry. Pai is behaving like he is still Verizon’s lawyer, not someone required to serve the public interest.

Arlington, VA – Ajit Pai, the Chair of the FCC, is on a mission to destroy the Internet by reclassifying it so that it is no longer a common carrier where we all have equal access and repeal net neutrality rules so Comcast, Verizon and A&T can discriminate based on content.

Net neutrality protesting outside of Ajit Pai's home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador, DC Media Group.

Net neutrality protesting outside of Ajit Pai’s home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador, DC Media Group.

Net neutrality activists began a vigil at the FCC chairman’s home in Arlington on Sunday, May 14 to protest. They will continue on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday until the public meeting at the FCC on Thursday, May 18. Twenty people stood outside of his home holding signs urging “Save The Internet,” “We Want Democracy Not Net Monopolies,” “Ajit Pai Stop the Lies” “Protect the Internet” and “Equal Access for All.”

The protest was supported by every neighbor who spoke to them, one even offered the use of their bathroom if net neutrality advocates needed it. Three of the participants were from the neighborhood and attended because the week before they found a door hanger describing Ajit Pai and the issue on their front door. The door hangers were placed on 200 doors in Pai’s neighborhood so when the protest occurred,people would understand what was happening.

Some of Ajit Pai neighbors came out and joined the protest in his neighborhood. May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Some of Ajit Pai neighbors came out and joined the protest in his neighborhood. May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Pai has made it clear in public statements that he intends to repeal the Title II classification of the Internet as a common carrier. He also intends to repeal net neutrality rules that allow regulation so that there can be no discrimination in access to content on the Internet. The former Verizon lawyer is acting in the interests of his former employer and other big telecoms rather than in the public interest. He is announcing what looks like a sham public comment proceeding on May 18 since he has already announced his decision. It is going to take an overwhelming mobilization of people to prevent him from destroying Internet freedom.

CLICK HERE TO SEND HIM A DIRECT MESSAGE.

Lee Stewart protests outside Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Lee Stewart protests outside Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

The Internet has been a vibrant tool for innovation, creativity, free speech and independent media and an engine for the economy because there is equal access. Under Title II, as it is currently classified, the Internet is a common carrier like electricity coming to your home. Title II is also essential for putting in place net neutrality rules as the DC Court of Appeals ruled when Verizon sued the FCC in 2014. Net neutrality is the idea that access to the Internet should not be based on content. If the content is legal then it should be treated like all other content on the web. Preference cannot be given to sites whose content is approved by the Internet Service Providers, e.g. Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, and corporations and people cannot purchase better service than others. Equal access for all is the current rule and we must protect it.

Kevin Zeese protesting outside of Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador of DC Media Group.

Kevin Zeese protesting outside of Ajit Pai home on May 14, 2017. By Anne Meador of DC Media Group.

Complicating the issue further is that Internet Service Providers are rapidly becoming Internet content providers too. Comcast now owns NBC/MSNBC, AT&T is seeking to purchase CNN, Verizon owns Huff Post. AT&T already owns the largest pay-TV provider in the US thanks to last year’s purchase of DirecTV.  If the ISP’s are able to discriminate based on content, then they can prioritize their content and suppress others’ content. This sets us on a path towards monopolization and consolidation of the Internet as commercial media is now.

The critical issue for our future is to keep the Internet competitive and creative, where innovators in products, services and political thought have a place where they can break through and help lead humankind to advance. The telecom corporations, with their well-paid spokespeople like Grover Norquist, are putting out a fog in order to increase their profits and take advantage of the Internet. Here are some thoughts to consider:

- Net neutrality is essential as we cannot have a free market of ideas and services if a handful of corporate monopolies (created with the assistance of government) can control what people see on the Internet. Monopoly control of access and quality of web service is anti-free market. Repealing net neutrality is crony capitalism destroying a free market of products, services and ideas.

- A competitive market requires that everyone have equal access to the Internet. Tim Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, wrote in Keeping the Internet Competitive that when the trucking industry was deregulated it worked because everyone had access to the roadways and could go wherever they needed to go without restrictions. Competition on the Internet works because everyone has equal access to it and can go where they need to go without restrictions. Title II is the strongest legal foundation to protect equal access.

Every conversation with Pai neighbors was positive. No one in the community criticized the protest. Neighbors of Pai oppose what he is doing. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

Every conversation with Pai neighbors was positive. No one in the community criticized the protest. Neighbors of Pai oppose what he is doing. Photo by Eleanor Goldfield.

-Start-ups for Net Neutrality” is 1,000-member group of start-up businesses that have written to Commissioner Pai urging him to keep net neutrality and Title II. They see it as essential for allowing new businesses to compete, to be able to put out their product or service and get a niche in the economy and be able to challenge existing businesses. In their letter to Pai they write, after applauding efforts to create a faster Internet, that:

We also depend on an open Internet—including enforceable net neutrality rules that ensure big cable companies can’t discriminate against people like us. We’re deeply concerned with your intention to undo the existing legal framework.

Without net neutrality, the incumbents who provide access to the Internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market. They could impede traffic from our services in order to favor their own services or established competitors. Or they could impose new tolls on us, inhibiting consumer choice. Those actions directly impede an entrepreneur’s ability to “start a business, immediately reach a worldwide customer base, and disrupt an entire industry.” Our companies should be able to compete with incumbents on the quality of our products and services, not our capacity to pay tolls to Internet access providers.

Protest for net neutrality at FC Chair Ajit Pais house on May 14, 2017. Photo by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Protest for net neutrality at FC Chair Ajit Pais house on May 14, 2017. Photo by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The same is true for entrepreneurs and small business. They need an open Internet accessible equally to all in order to compete, innovate and succeed. No person or business should be paying tolls for better Internet service.

- The same is true for media. Pai is also allowing big mergers so the already concentrated corporate media is getting more concentrated. Upcoming is a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which includes CNN and HBO. If Comcast — who owns NBC/MSBC is legally allowed to regulate access to the Internet by content, what will this mean for alternative, independent and non-profit media — or to social media — that challenges the narrative of the corporate mass media? They can throttle other views and without net neutrality it will be legal. Think of the Internet as a mall where the owners allow you in but puts the stores they own closer to the entrance and places obstacles in the way of getting to their competitors. That would be the opposite of a competitive market. It would be a closed market controlled by a corporation.

Protest outsid of Pai's home on May 14, 2017. By Eleanor Goldfield- In the future ISP’s that own MSNBC , CNN and other media will have the power not to allow competitive news sources or advocacy news sources to stream live on their broadband networks. If the ISP’s have the choice to shut down independent news sources that compete with them for viewers, they will. That is what is coming. The Internet will be more of a tool for big media (and government) propaganda and shut down the vibrant free speech that a wider media is allowing to occur.

Unfortunately, because the telecoms choose not to compete with each other, most people do not have a choice of provider. They are in Comcast, Verizon or AT&T territory so they have nowhere else to go. That is why they get away with overpriced access, lousy service and slow Internet speeds compared to the rest of the world. It is also why they are among the most unpopular corporations in the country. Monopolies do not need to create faster Internet like the rest of the developed world has, and they will not need to be content neutral or allow equal access to all if Title II net neutrality rules are repealed. Don’t let that happen. Act now to protect our Internet.

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Ignored By Western Media, Syrians Describe the Nightmare the Armed Opposition Brought Them

Trapped between a police state and Al Qaeda, average Syrians explain why they fear regime change.

Photo Credit: Orlok / Shutterstock.com

Supporters of the Syrian opposition have relentlessly demanded that Western observers listen to “Syrian voices.” The idea is that by absorbing the testimonies of Syrians who have experienced the violence of the conflict first hand, Westerners will know how to best help them. Yet Western media consumers have scarcely heard from ordinary people who reside within the areas controlled by the government -- the areas where the vast majority of Syrians live. Indeed, the voices of Syrians like Areej, one of many people I spoke to inside Syria’s government-held areas for this report, present a testimony that is simply too inconvenient for Western media to consider.

Areej was a university student in the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012 when the American-backed Free Syrian Army captured the eastern half of the city. She had participated in student protests against the Assad regime and was initially sympathetic to the armed insurgents. Nowadays, however, she regrets protesting at all and even blames herself for her country’s descent into war.

“I was with the demonstrations,” Areej told me when we met in Damascus. “At the beginning of the war it was for freedom. But if I could go back to four years ago, I would not have gone out to the demonstrations because I didn’t want the situation to become like this. We regret it.”

Once the armed opposition besieged the government side of Aleppo in 2013 where Areej and the vast majority of the city’s 1.4 million residents lived at the time, they cut off the electricity and the water supply. Life became intolerable. Disillusionment with the uprising turned into resentment and before long, Areej fled to Damascus.

She became even further disturbed by the rebellion after her family’s village Jisr al-Shugour, located in Idlib Governorate, was seized by insurgents in 2015.

When Areej visited her family the following year, she was shocked at what she discovered. Suddenly trapped under Taliban-style rule, Areej was forced to cover from head-to-toe. “I stayed one year and a half without seeing my family. I hugged my father in the street and asked, am I going to get you in trouble for hugging you in public since I am a woman?” she recalled.

The insurgents renamed the center of the town “Slaughter Square,” publicly punishing people there for moral code violations like smoking and adultery. Areej complained, “The style of the armed groups is disgusting. Their beards are like 5 meters long. They think they are living like in Mohammed’s time. They are wrong. And anyway, we are in 2017. They think they are in 1014 Islamic State.”

Many of the armed groups Areej came across were made up of non-Syrian Salafi Jihadists who could not speak the local dialect. In many cases they couldn’t speak any Arabic at all. “There was a group from China, Kazakhstan, another from Pakistan, another with fighters from France,” she said, rolling her eyes. Indeed, there are thousands of Chinese foreign fighters who joined the jihad in Syria. Calling themselves the Turkistan Islamic Party, they helped spearhead the seizure of Areej’s village. But they weren’t alone.

Each street corner seemed to be controlled by a different faction. Every faction spray painted their name on the walls to demonstrate their claim over a street. She remembers on one wall where a rebel group inscribed the popular slogan, “Democracy is the religion of blasphemy.”

Areej noticed that much of the graffiti was scrawled by foreigners. “The groups that are governing the area my family is from wrote their names on the walls in bad Arabic,” Areej recalled, shaking her head in disdain. Her hometown was suddenly teeming with Frenchmen. “Syrian people are dying to reach France while people from France come here to kill Syrians,” she complained.

She eventually helped her family escape Jisr al-Shogour. They joined her in Damascus where they are internally displaced refugees dependent on UN aid. “There are no winners,” said Areej. “All of the countries—Russia, Iran, America, Saudi Arabia—they are playing with us. We are like toys.” Yet she still wants the government to vanquish the insurgents because the alternative they present to Assad is so terrifying.

Worst media coverage in modern history

The voices of Syrians like Areej simply do not fit within the accepted narrative that justifies the West’s geopolitical aims. And it is wholly out of line with the content that dominates the Qatari state outlet Al Jazeera, which has functioned as a 24/7 vehicle for the Syrian armed opposition. And so she and others like her have been ignored.

Like 18 million Syrians, Areej lives under the control of the Syrian government. Seven million of them are internally displaced refugees who have fled from the areas conquered by the insurgents and ISIS. Only about 2.5 million people live under the opposition’s control, while some 1.8 million live in areas dominated by ISIS.

The coverage of Syria by Western media contains little resemblance at all to the lived experiences described to me by the people I met when I visited the areas where most Syrians live in 2016.

Having watched for years as Syrian expatriates promoting regime change from abroad occupy the limelight, Syrians inside the country have developed a strong sense of resentment.

In the United States, two of the Syrians most prominently featured by mainstream media are Lina Sergie Attar, CEO and co-founder of the Karam Foundation, and Zaher Sahloul, the former head of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). Both have been pushing for years for the US to bomb Syria, and have set up advocacy arms to promote their aims.

Writing under the pen name Amal Hanano for Al Jazeera in 2013, Attar agitated for the US to go to war against the Syrian government. She claimed to be speaking on behalf of Syrians but she hasn’t been to the country since 2008.

Despite providing medical services in areas controlled by Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Sahloul’s SAMS has received millions in support from the US Agency for International Aid and Development. Both his organization and Karam have collaborated on Syria with the Zionist and Islamophobic Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. They have therefore been branded with the Western media’s stamp of approval.

Attar was a guest on Democracy Now the day after President Donald Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that the US blamed on the Syrian government. “I am very happy that there is one less airfield for Bashar al-Assad to use to kill his own people,” Attar told Amy Goodman. However, residents near the targeted al-Shayrat airbase told the LA Times that the base was instrumental in protecting them from ISIS.

Zaher Sahloul, another vocal advocate for US military intervention who has also appeared on Democracy Now, claims that SAMS provides medical care in opposition areas, but never specifies that these areas -- like eastern Aleppo before the government recaptured it or Idlib today -- are under the control of Salafi Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda. In Idlib, the Al-Qaeda-controlled area where SAMS supports the rebel-run administration, “schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls,” according to Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma's Middle East Studies Center.

During my trip to Aleppo, the center of the Western media’s attention and one of the most misunderstood places on Earth, I met Sameer, a 28-year-old Aleppo native and Aleppo University graduate. (Sameer asked me to change his name to protect him from retaliation by extended family members who have  joined rebel groups). He complained to me that pro-interventionist Western Arabs who dominate the narrative come from one of two camps.

“Most Syrians in the West who are today’s pro-opposition activists are descendants of Syrian and Egyptian-expelled Muslim Brotherhood families or they are ex-aristocrats who lost their lands due to socialist policies in the 1950s and 60s,” he told me. “Now they speak out against the government from the safety of America.”

His description reminded me of right-wing Cubans who formed a vast apparatus in Miami to lobby for overthrowing Cuba’s communist government or shady influencers like Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who convinced Washington power brokers that he would usher in a democratic, Israel-friendly government if it agreed to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Before the war, Sameer was just out of college and earning $350 monthly as a sales manager. Today, because of inflation due in large part to draconian US and EU sanctions pushed by Western opposition activists, he works twelve hours a day, six days a week and makes about $47 a month.

One reason rebel groups still have fighters is because they pay salaries to average Syrians, especially in areas where the state has been expelled, where residents are most desperate to feed their families. With the Syrian economy teetering on the edge of collapse, the sanctions provide the armed groups with an endless stream of economically desperate recruits. In other words, Western sanctions are fueling the war.

Sameer is among the 18 million Syrians -- over75 percent of the country’s population -- that live in government-controlled areas. Like Areej, he supports Syria’s government out of strong opposition to the religious fundamentalism and brutality of the armed groups, which they perceive as a foreign invasion force that will eradicate their families if they win.

The US media tends to avoid any factual analysis of the rebels, their goals or their extremist ideology. In doing so, they avoid some of the most crucial questions of the conflict: Who will succeed Assad if his government collapses? And what will happen to the two million Christians, the Shia minorities, and the masses of secular Syrians who have no place under the religiously exclusivist rule the Salafist insurgents have imposed on areas they control?

A recently published report by the London-based IHS Jane Terrorism and Insurgency Centre hinted at the answer. The report found what has always been obvious to Syrians living in government controlled areas: the Islamic State, or ISIS, is the Syrian government’s chief opponent and would be the primary beneficiary of regime change. “Any further reduction in the capability of Syria’s already overstretched forces would reduce their ability to prevent the Islamic State from pushing out of the desert into the more heavily populated western Syria, threatening cities like Homs and Damascus,” the report concluded.

To avoid acknowledging inconvenient truths, American media tends to shift all the blame for the conflict onto the Syrian government, spinning out a convenient narrative of a one-sided war pitting a cartoonishly evil regime that enjoys killing children against a ragtag team of freedom fighters who were forced to take up arms to protect Syria’s civilian population. Assad is invariably portrayed as a uniquely evil figure with no rational capacity -- an “animal,” as Donald Trump called him -- while the atrocities committed by his Western-backed adversaries, most recently in Rashidin, where over 80 Shia evacuees, mostly women and small children, were slaughtered by a suicide bomber, are ignored or whitewashed.

For the Western mainstream media, the very existence of Syrians like Sameer -- ordinary people who have been forced into a corner and who now view the government in Damascus as the only thing standing between themselves and life (or death) under Salafi-Jihadist warlords -- is perhaps the most uncomfortable reality of the conflict.

Even the progressive American left, which has traditionally been skeptical of pro-war propaganda, has bought into the mainstream version of the Syrian conflict. Across the political spectrum, from the New York Times to Democracy Now — the supposed bastion of alternative media — we hear strikingly similar talking points supporting intervention. The impact of such coverage on the antiwar movement cannot be overstated. In private, leftists of all stripes tell me that they are afraid to speak out against the destruction of another state under the guise of humanitarian intervention for fear of being mocked as “anti-imperialists” or accused of Islamophobia and “Assadism.”

American media outlets from right to left seem to imagine that there is a democratic mass movement living in Al Qaeda’s Idlib. Or they insist that the uprising was always moderate and democratic until Assad’s bombs transformed protesters into armed and radical insurgents, a common talking point that permeates any discussion of Syria. According to Syrian protesters I spoke to, both of these claims are at best simplifications, and at worst, complete myths.

Two revolutions

From the perspective of the Syrians I met who witnessed the protests of 2011, there was never one single unified democratic uprising. Some protests were led by idealistic young people who wanted basic democratic reforms. Others were religiously conservative and devoted to Islamist oriented demands.

“There were always 2 parallel streams in the Syrian uprising at the beginning. The civil activists who wanted democratic reform and change in the form of a secular state, and the conservative stream, which was markedly more Islamist and sectarian in its tone and demands,” Edward Dark, an activist from Aleppo who participated in the city’s pro-democracy protests, told me.

“The former was mostly urban, the latter rural,” he explained. “As the uprising went on and the violence intensified, the civil movement became increasingly silenced and weak, while the Islamist movement became quickly more militant and radicalized.”

Video footage of an anti-regime protest in the Syrian city of Baniyas on March 18, 2011, for example, shows an imam listing protester demands, including a call for gender segregated schools and for women teachers to wear the niqab, both practices banned by the regime. His demands were met with raucous cheers, applause and religious chants from a large, all-male crowd of demonstrators. These videos were often promoted by US media as proof of Syria’s democratic uprising at the time. But few observers bothered to listen to what the protesters were actually saying.

Opposition activists in the Syrian village of Hula echoed these same right-wing demands to journalist Nir Rosen in 2011. "They were upset about the ban of the niqab, or full veil, on women in public schools - while the medical student complained that the books of the medieval Islamic scholar and Salafi source, Ibn Taimiya, were banned,” Rosen reported at the time.

Of course, there were pro-democracy protests, but the uprising failed to spread along any unified political lines. The revolt presented a mix of religious conservatives and democratic-minded reformers. Depicting these disparate groups as one in the same would be the equivalent of conflating left-wing American protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter with the right-wing Tea Party protests or Trump rallies.

According to Dark, “most civil activists refused to support an armed uprising, and either went into exile and remained silent, or became active on a solitary basis. Those who switched to the armed camp did so mostly out of sectarian, or personal reasons (revenge over a death for example). The rest who remained either turned their back on the armed uprising, or actually turned against it as they saw it was now being used a vessel to destroy the country and no longer championed any ideals of freedom and democracy and instead encompassed a violent Islamic extremism that was contrary to what they were struggling for.”

“The wake-up call for me was when rebel groups from the neighboring towns stormed Aleppo in spring 2012, bringing with them a wave of violence, looting and destruction the likes of which Aleppo hadn't seen in centuries. A particular incident I can clearly remember was seeing black Qaeda flags at a checkpoint in my city, and having a foreign fighter ask Syrian people for their IDs. That's when I knew everything had gone horribly wrong, and it was all over for our side of the ‘revolution’,” he said.

Dark was heavily attacked for refusing to support the armed insurrection. “Those outside Syria called me a traitor for turning my back on what they still saw as a ‘Syrian revolution’ as was to be expected from people who never lived and saw what we did and only got their news from social media or global news networks,” he said.

“Most Syrians also seem to think the Syrian regime is infinitely more preferable to the anarchy of a failed state ruled by extremist Islamists. I would invite anyone who thinks the opposite to come to Syria and try living in rebel vs regime controlled areas, or to imagine that some of those rebels he supports came over to his city and took over power there,” he added.

As another Syrian told me, “We are trapped between a police state and al Qaeda. Of course I choose the police state.” For many Syrians they prefer a state to no state at all.

Getting sectarianism wrong

Anas Joudeh, an attorney and political activist in Damascus, says he and his colleagues, not the armed groups, represent the real opposition in Syria. Joudeh heads the Nation Building Movement, a civil society opposition group that works to build domestic and organic nonviolent opposition from within the country.

“I will not accept anybody from Ahrar al Sham or Jaish al Islam or Mujahideen or whatever guy in those ranks to be at the table of the political discussion. If we do that, what next?  Should we appoint Ahrar al Sham as Defense Minister of Syria? They will kill me. I’m not talking about minorities. I, who was born to a Sunni Muslim family from Damascus, will not accept this. They will attack me first,” he told me when we met in Damascus late last year.

Joudeh was ecstatic at the eruption of protests in 2011 but quickly became disenchanted with the sectarian flavor of the insurgency. After some of the opposition took up arms and began to organize into Islamist factions, Joudeh stepped in to help mediate between the government and the armed groups and was close to reaching a negotiated ceasefire. But the emergence of ISIS changed everything.

“Everything collapsed when ISIS took Mosul,” Joudeh told me. “The armed groups in Aleppo and in Idlib said we can’t have any kind of negotiation with the regime now because our guys will go to ISIS and we will lose everything. We have to keep some kind of balance with ISIS. So they said we will not attack ISIS because we are brothers with the same ideology. They are Muslims like us. The whole scene changed. You have to look now for the civilians under their control, but [the armed groups] are out of the equation,” recalled Joudeh.

Joudeh strongly disagrees with the notion, common in US media and among opposition advocacy groups operating in the West, that the Syrian government is committing genocide against the country’s Sunni population.

“It’s always easy to have a simple view of what’s happening. That’s the problem with the Americans,” he commented. “They think it’s all sectarian. But until now we didn’t have this religious war in Syria. If you go to Tartous and Latakia you have almost one million refugees from Idlib. The regime is not an Alawite regime. It’s an oligarchy. It’s about self-interests.”

Joudeh pointed to Aleppo as an example: “The western side of Aleppo [that was] controlled by the regime is mainly Sunni. And they are totally pro-regime. The roots of the crisis are mainly social not religious.”

The stakes

The armed insurgency seeking to topple the government, on the other hand, is exclusively Sunni and has openly expressed genocidal ambitions that Western media tends to downplay, if not ignore altogether.

The insurgency;s sectarianism is even more dominant today given that the vast majority of the rebellion has merged with Al Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, called on the group’s Syria affiliate to “prepare yourselves for a long battle with the Crusaders and their allies, the Shiites and Alawites.”

Syria may be a dictatorship but it is also a religiously pluralistic and culturally rich society that would be shattered by a Salafi-jihadist takeover.

Mahmoud Abdel Latif al Jamil Ahmed was an Imam in East Aleppo in 2012 when it was captured by rebels. He worked at the endowment ministry of liaisons affairs. He told me he was arrested by the insurgents and charged with the following crimes: Writing in a newspaper they did not like, naming his son Hassan Nasrallah (after the leader of Hezbollah) and failing to instruct his congregants to protest the Assad regime after Friday prayers.

On June 27, 2012, he says he was almost assassinated “because I did not agree with their [the rebels] ideas. They tried to shoot me. They killed 11 sheikhs, four of whom were working with the endowment ministry.”

Another Imam who asked to go by Dr. Rami, added, “They are the enemy of humanity. The mosaic we are living with in Syria is incompatible with them. Those killing Sunnis are the same as those claiming they are defending Sunnis.”

He blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia for inciting fanaticism that is antithetical to Islam. “Our religion calls for tolerance and free speech,” Rami insisted. “How far are the terrorists from these concepts?” He referenced the role of Saudi-born clerics like Abdullah al-Muhaysini, whom he called “Al Qaeda’s “rock star Sheikh,” in inspiring rebel atrocities.

In Aleppo, I also met the city’s Bishop Youssef Tobji, a leader of the city’s threatened Christian Maronite community. “If you respect us, please don’t say ‘rebel’ in front of us,” Tobji demanded. “They killed our children, our history. They are terrorists.”

The bishop then turned to me and asked how America, the target of the 9/11 attacks, could arm groups associated with Al Qaeda and then have the audacity to glorify such people as rebels. I struggled to offer him an answer.

Rania Khalek is an independent journalist living in the Washington D.C. area.

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Iran’s presidential election: the cynical moderate versus the representative of the deep state

By Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi. This article was first published on Open Democracy.

As the incumbent moderate president faces off the Islamic Republic's deep state, potential variations and the shadow of previous disputed elections looms menacingly.

Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rohani and the now presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at the funeral of the previous head of Imam Reza foundation in late January 2016. Picture by khamenei.ir [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Since 1997, the results of Iran’s presidential elections have followed two repetitive patterns: they have usually been determined at the last possible moment, and have been a surprise compared to early predictions and previous election norms. The current election process has been no different. It has been marked by many surprises and scandalized by taboo-breaking campaigns.

As the election day, Friday the 19th of May approaches, the incumbent moderate president, Hassan Rohani is locked in a close contest with his main challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, who has emerged as the representative of Islamic Republic’s deep state. At the moment President Rohani seems to be ahead but it may not be decisive enough to avoid a second ballot. The result of the election relies on variables, which will remain undetermined till the last possible moment. One potential and worrisome variable is that a candidate such as Ebrahim Raisi and the forces behind him do not take kindly to be thwarted by the electorate.

Until early April, it seemed that President Rohani would have an easy ride towards reelection. The surprise entrance of Ebrahim Raisi changed that and the dynamics of the competition. Ebrahim Raisi comes from the deepest enclaves of the Islamic Republic's deep state. Aged only 17 when the 1979 revolution toppled the monarchy, Raisi joined and advanced rapidly in the newly formed Islamic judiciary and was deputy prosecutor general, when he was appointed to a special committee in the summer of 1988. Nicknamed "the death committees" by Iranian opposition, these committees were set up by the express order of the charismatic Supreme Leader and the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini.

In an arbitrary decree, prompted by the final phase of Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini proclaimed that any political prisoner “still obdurate in their belief” is an enemy of god and their lives are, legally, forfeit. This paved the way for the massacre of Iran's political prisoners. Special committees were set up to decide which prisoners were “still obdurate in their belief” and Raisi was one of the five members of the central committee in Tehran. Most of the said prisoners were either the Marxist-Islamist Mojahedin (AKA M.K.O & M.E.K) or communists and most of them (numbering unknown thousands) were hanged according to the decisions made by these committees’ summary sessions.

Iraj Mesdaghi, a survivor of that massacre and an expert on the subject, claims that Raisi was present at the hanging of prisoners and celebrated them with pastry. The memory of those executions still haunts the Islamic Republic and has plagued Raisi’s presidential bid. Raisi continued to advance to the highest levels of the judiciary but kept a low profile despite the growing and gradual stream of information about the prisoners’ massacre and his role in it. That changed about a year ago when the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi as the custodian of Imam Reza Foundation, the wealthiest religious-economic complex of the country. This move sparked rumors that Raisi is being groomed as the next Supreme Leader. The office of the Supreme Leader has essentially become a focal point for the management of Islamic Republic’s military-security apparatus and Raisi’s background made him a perfect candidate for such position.

Therefore, Raisi's presidential bid was surprising; why he would risk his long-term advance in an election in which his chances seemed dismal?

Raisi’s entrance was the first surprise of this election but was overshadowed by the next surprise as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threw his hat in the ring despite the express forbidding of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Controversial and divisive as ever, Ahmadinejad’s presidential bid was brought to a quick end, when he was disqualified by the Guardian Council and police units were deployed around his place of residence to discourage any more shenanigans.

Less surprising was the entry of Tehran’s mayor Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf to the foray, another member of the Islamic Republic deep state. But unlike Raisi, who chose to be a background functionary, Qalibaf has been an open and active political figure in the past two decades. A senior general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (I.R.G.C) and former Chief of Police of Tehran, Qalibaf became a, supposedly, civilian politician with high aspirations. Mayor of Tehran since 2004, Qalibaf had tried twice to become president and seemed to have the support of the majority of the I.R.G.C for his third bid for presidency.

Along with three other minor candidates (all long-term establishment figures approved by the Guardian Council), the competition began in earnest. The contest has been a sordid and cynical affair, in which no candidate held any moral high-ground and lacked vision and inspiration, and instead relied on crude negative campaigning. Rohani's campaign seriously underestimated the competition and perceived victory a foregone conclusion and failed to produce any tangible program or positive message. Rohani's reformist allies acted similarly in their bid to win local council elections which takes place in the same day as the presidential election. Theirs and Rohani's message to the electorate was “beware of the barbarian at the gate, we are the best deal you can get". This message had a ring of truth to it but wasn't relayed to the electorate in a humble, emphatic and persuasive way. It reeked of snobbery and alienated a significant layer of Iranian voters who are keen on expanding democracy and civil society. Comprised mostly of the urban middle and upper class, young voters and various civil rights campaigners, this voting block (which has strong secular leanings) forms the backbone of Rohani’s base. Whenever moderate and reformist factions were able to motivate this block, they have won elections. Rohani and the reformist high and mighty demeanor led to considerable disaffection among this block.

Rohani’s other campaign failure was the economy where his team, again, failed to produce any coherent plan or message. A serious mistake, particularly since Rohani’s administration cannot claim any great success in this field. More than a year has passed since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement and many Iranians have yet to feel any visible improvement in their lot. This provided great opportunity to the hardliner candidates who launched a well-financed, energetic and populist campaign to grab the votes of the lower income and poverty-stricken Iranians. Taking over the mantle of Ahmadinejad, Qalibaf proclaimed that he would create millions of jobs and provide a $77 monthly cash subsidy to all Iranians.

In the live presidential debates, Qalibaf further raised the stakes by accusing Rohani’s government with corruption and wanton disregard for the poor.  Raisi, also, focused on the financial needs of the poor and unprivileged and made similar promises. The scale of promises made by Qalibaf and Raisi reached ludicrous proportions as the state is totally incapable to honor such pledges. The danger signs prompted Rohani out of inaction and he tried to rally his base in the most unprecedented and controversial way. In a series of campaign speeches, Rohani reaffirmed his promises to Iran’s civil society and crossed many red lines by attacking his opponents’ record on civil liberties. In the most astonishing statement, Rohani proclaimed that “our nation will once again demonstrate its’ disapproval with those who know nothing other than execution and imprisoning”. This was a direct stab at Raisi and Qalibaf's security backgrounds. They responded by intensifying their accusations and negative campaigning.

The presidential mudslinging reached such heights that prompted a reaction from Supreme Leader Khamenei, who emphasized the dangerous plans of external enemies and warned all candidates “not to aid the enemy’s unfinished job”. Khamenei’s speech was made in a ceremony of I.R.G.C's cadets where he was surrounded by I.R.G.C top brass including General Qasim Suleimani. Rohani paid no heed and continued his attacks on the record of his rivals. This made the last election debate an outrageous and comical event. Rohani successfully brushed off Qalibaf's corruption allegations by referring to Qalibaf’s own questionable financial dealings and his role in civil suppression. Rohani also infuriated Raisi by sly cynical remarks about his role as an oppressive judge. Rohani’s campaign gained momentum as he pressed on with further promises about civil liberties. With these tactics, it seems that Rohani has been able to rally his main socio-political base.

On Monday, another surprise came to pass, as Qalibaf withdrew from the competition in favor of Raisi. The race is on a knife's edge. While Rohani's recent maneuvering has swayed many of his disaffected base (the urban middle and upper class, young voters, political and civil rights activists, artists, etc.) it may not be enough to secure a decisive victory. Rohani's great failure in providing an inspiring economic message will cost him, while the great machine behind Raisi can, literally, buy many votes. Also, Rohani's campaign didn't pay sufficient attention to local constituencies who vote according to marginal, regional and ethnic factors.

For example, Iran's province of Kurdistan supplied about 440,000 votes to Rohani's 2013 election. This number is expected to fall, considerably, due to Rohani's incapability to deliver his promises. At the moment it seems certain that Rohani will not achieve his 2013 record of 18 million votes. The question is how many votes will Rohani lose? The available polls are inconclusive and a second ballot is very possible. The unpredictability of Iran's elections may allow a huge rise in Rohani's vote in the last moment.

There are other potential factors which can influence the outcome of elections and, unfortunately, one of them is in the hands of the unpredictable Mr. Trump. As outlined by The Economist, by May 17th, President Trump must decide whether to continue the suspensions of Iran's nuclear related sanctions, or not. The suspensions were President Obama's reward for Iran constraining its nuclear program. President Trump's decision can either boost or sink President Rohani's chances for reelection.

One nagging question troubles many, including this author: why did the powers that be chose a candidate such as Raisi? And why have they forced Qalibaf to withdraw in Raisi's favor? Qalibaf was combative and energetic while Raisi is uninspiring and vividly uncomfortable in front of cameras. The most logical explanation is that the Islamic Republic’s deep state (the unelected institutions headed by the office of the Supreme Leader, the judicial and security apparatus, the economic monopolies and the I.R.G.C) are making a combined effort to reclaim the presidency. The deep states’ need for such move may be linked to the issue of the Supreme Leader's succession. Ayatollah Khamenei is in his late 70's and reportedly ill. In the event of his death, the President will be in a key position to influence the selection of the next Supreme Leader.

If this theory is to be taken seriously, it adds a more troubling question to this election: how determined is the deep state to install Raisi as president? Many Iranians simply don't wish to think about this question as the repercussions are too grave. The memories of the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections are still fresh in their minds. There were serious accusations about the integrity of the first round of 2004 election. One of the contenders, Mehdi Karrubi, accused the I.R.G.C, the Islamic Militia (Basij) and other security organizations of manipulating the election to pave the way for Ahmadinejad's ascent. Ahmadinejad did ascend to the presidency and, four years later, Karrubi found himself in open confrontation with the regime, when he and the other presidential challenger, Mir-Hossein Musavi defied the 2009 electoral coup.

Eight years have passed since that fiasco and both Karrubi and Musavi are still under house arrest. There is no definite evidence or sign of such situation reoccurring, yet. But there is ample reasons to believe that the deep state (the I.R.G.C in particular) can engineer the 2005's alleged scenario. The I.R.G.C and Basij can mobilize vast numbers of voters in favor of Raisi and they can do more. In 2005 voter's participation was low and certain amount of vote-rigging could take place, while maintaining plausible denial. In 2009 the reformist game-plan was to counter such measures by vast turn-out which is probably what caused the electoral coup. This year, the turn-out is out to be lower than 2012 and the closer the competition, the easier it is to manipulate it. A more disturbing thought is that to bring Raisi out of the backgrounds and to put him in the vanguard of the deep state's campaign, demonstrates a grim determination. What is there to stop the deep state from ensuring Raisi's presidency by any means necessary?

What makes this unthinkable is that even the smallest internal upheaval will risk exceedingly dangerous repercussions for the security of the state, particularly given the tense regional and international situation. However, the Islamic Republic has demonstrated a great illogical capacity for risk-taking.

One can only hope and pray that this is nothing but undue concern caused by a bitter experience. As this article is being concluded extra security and police forces are being deployed in Tehran. This may be nothing more than a cautionary measure by a security force also anxious by previous memories or...

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The post-Trump era?

By Doug Henwood. This article was first published on LBO News.

How much longer can this go on? As I write this, PredictIt gives 71/29 odds that Trump will last the year, but it’s mighty tempting to buy the “no”—especially after the revelation that he asked Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation. (Disclosure alert: I bought 100 shares of “no” at $0.28.)

What is the endgame of the people, mostly Democrats, pounding the drums most heavily? Do they want to impeach Trump, which seems a long shot given Republican control of Congress? Do they want to bruise his weak ego so badly that he resigns? Clearly the job is much harder than he ever imagined—and, by the way, what reasonably sentient person over the age of 8 ever thought the presidency wasn’t grindingly hard? But he also wants adulation, not the relentless volleys of shit he’s gotten. It’s not impossible to imagine him just walking offstage, especially if his legal situation gets seriously dicey.

What then? President Pence? If Pence were president, the entire Republican dream agenda would sail through Congress in like three weeks. Pence spent a dozen years in Congress (Tea Party branch) and four years as governor of Indiana; he’s an appalling figure but he knows how things work. He might not be able to overcome his party’s internal divisions, but he probably could do a better job than Trump, and every day would not be a circus as it is now.

DonnyMike

Pence is a horror—fiscal sadist, misogynist, homophobe, lover of the carceral state. He’s repeatedly described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” though given today’s modern GOP, it’s not clear there’s much of a difference among these features. (He should have said he’s a reactionary Christian; there are plenty of other kinds.) He’s a creationist who rejects climate change, thinks stem cell research is “obsolete,” and once actually said that “smoking doesn’t kill.” His anti-abortion law was the most extreme in the country. His cuts to Planned Parenthood led to a rural HIV epidemic. Like Sessions, Pence is a maximalist on drugs, including weed. He’s hot to privatize Social Security. He likened the Supreme Court’s upholding of Obamacare to 9/11.

Should Trump get pushed out, the orchestrated campaign of healing would be painful. It’s not far-fetched to imagine leading Democrats channelling Gerald Ford’s “our long national nightmare is over.” There would be something of what Wall Street calls a “relief rally” on the transition, and it would perversely grease the way for Pence to make the U.S. more like the Indiana he left behind. We should be fighting to keep him in office, as fatally damaged goods.

Several things seem to be driving this campaign to squeeze Trump out, aside from the obvious fact he’s an unstable ignoramus. Dems still can’t get over the fact that they lost to the most unpopular candidate in the history of polling, but instead of blaming their own terrible candidate (the second-most unpopular candidate in the history of polling) and the slavers’ legacy, the Electoral College, they want to blame Russia. (Time was they blamed Comey too—remember when Paul Krugman said that “Comey and Putin installed a crazy, vindictive can’t-handle-the-truth person in the White House”? But he’s since been rehabilitated.)

But that’s not all: a large part of the political class (Hillary prominent among them, along with John McCain), the security establishment, and their contract-hungry patrons in the military–industrial complex all want desperately to make Russia the enemy, and are reviving zombie tropes from the Cold War to promote their cause. Trump may well have friends in the Russian mob, but his resistance to elite hostility towards the country is one of the few non-awful things about him.

It’s been stunning to watch liberals cheering on the security state’s war-by-leak against Trump. He’s odious, but he is the legally elected president—under an absurd electoral system, but that’s the one we’ve got. (Makes you wonder what they would have done to Sanders, if by some unimaginable fluke he’d won.) And yet we’ve seen months of praise for the CIA and the FBI as the magic bullets who could deliver us from the short-fingered vulgarian.

The defenses of the CIA began with Trump’s disparaging remarks about the Agency before taking office, which were taken as near-blasphemous. For an amateur like Trump, such attacks were extremely risky. In early January, Chuck Schumer presciently warned (on the Maddow Show, of course): “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community—they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you.” You’d almost think that he knew what would come next: an endless series of leaks portraying Trump as Putin’s towel boy and, as an extra-special bonus, a pervert (the piss tape)—all applauded by liberals, with little regard for the CIA’s 70-year history of lying, assassination, and coups.

Then came the Comey firing, and suddenly the FBI was a noble organization as well. It’s far from that, and has always been. As Mark Ames reports in his little history of the Bureau, it has no legal charter; Congress didn’t want to authorize a secret police so Teddy Roosevelt created it by executive fiat. Much of the Bureau’s history was been about persecuting communists—and gay people—and smearing its enemies. It spent the 1960s and early 1970s trying to ruin Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and and the New Left. In other words, it’s been political from the very first, and all these current worries about “politicizing” the FBI are Grade A bullshit.

Which brings us back to the endgame issue. Democrats look to be extending the strategy of their failed 2016 campaign by being the not-Trump and nothing more—it’s all they’ve got. They are making no visible effort to come up with an appealing agenda as an alternative to the deeply unpopular one the GOP has on offer. In fact, they’re annoyed at Bernie Sanders for trying to get the party to talk about policy, which is somehow seen as an act of narcissism in the Beltway worldview:

But the senator, who’ll be 79 the next time the New Hampshire primary rolls around, is continuing to put himself at the center of the conversation. He’s introduced a Medicare-for-all bill this week that he hopes will force others to sign on.

Imagine that! Pushing a bill to expand health insurance coverage at a moment when Republicans are trying to take it away. The ego of that man.

The party’s strategy can’t be counted a success on conventional measures; Gallup reports that the Dems have lost 5 approval points since November, leaving the two parties with near-identical approval ratings (D: 40%, R: 39%).

Party popularity

 

During the early days of the Trump administration, it seemed like a serious left opposition might take form. That‘s a hazy memory now that so many liberals and even leftists are taking dictation from the security state and throwing around words like “treason.” We can do better than this, can’t we?

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MST Leader Joao Pedro Stedile: ‘We need direct elections now and an emergency plan for the people’

By Joana Tavares. this article was first published on The Dawn News.

After Temer falls, we need to stay on the streets, Stedile says.

Photo credit: Santiago Macambira / Mídia NinjaPhoto credit: Santiago Macambira / Mídia Ninja

Joao Pedro Stedile, leader of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) and of the People’s Brazil Front, analyzes the Brazilian political scenario, the role of the O Globo media network, the internal divisions among the putschists, and speaks about the need of building a transition government and the people’s project of Brazil.

Brasil de Fato: Why does the Globo network need to publish the audios that incriminate Michel Temer and why do they insist on indirect elections?

João Pedro Stédile: The Globo network became the main party of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. Ir protects the interests of capital, uses its force of manipulation of public opinion and coordinates with the ideological sectors of the bourgeoisie, which include the Judiciary Power, some procurators, and the press in general. They know that Brazil and the world are going through a serious economic, social and environmental crisis, caused by capitalism. That, in Brazil, became a political crisis, because the bourgeoisie needed to have hegemony in Congress and in the federal government in order to apply their plans to put all of the negative effects of the crisis on the shoulders of the working class. Therefore, the Globo network is an ideological author of the coup.

To them, putting Temer in power after Dilma’s impeachment was a faux pas, since his gang is full of lumpen politicians, opportunists and corrupts, who weren’t concerned with the bourgeois project for the country–they merely cared about their own pockets. The “weak meat” operation was another faux pas that helped discredit the PMDB (Temer’s party) since many of them were involved and ended up provoking a sector of the agroexporting bourgeoisie. Now they need to create an alternative to Temer. The way out of this will be decided over the next few hours or days, whether he resigns, or is judged by the Supreme Electoral Court or if the impeachment requests that were submitted to Congress are passed. Over the next few days the successor will be chosen, and many factors will influence that. The outcome won’t be the fruit of some Machiavellian plan by a particular sector (like Globo) but of the class struggle, and how that struggle plays out over the next hours, days and weeks.

How is the putschist sector reacting?

The sector that reached power through the coup is internally divided since 2014. And that helps us. Because in previous coups, like the 1964 one, and during the 1994 government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the bourgeoisie was united, under a single command, a single project for the country and a strong rearguard in US capital. Now, they don’t have a project for the country, they lost their US rearguard (because they were allied with Hillary Clinton) and want to salvatage only their own particular interest. In the words of José de Souza Martins, sociologist of the PSDB party, “reforms in retirement and labor policies are capitalist measures that increase exploitation of workers, but they’re also measures that go against a capitalist project for the country’.

The putschists also don’t have a unified command. They’re divided into the sector with economic power (which includes Minister of Finance Henrique Meirelles, and the company that denounced Temer, JBS), the group of PMDB lumpens (Romero Jupé, Eliseu Padilha, Temer himself, Moreira Franco), who have power over the law but are beginning to crack, like Renan Calheiros. There’s also an ideological group made up of Globo and the Judiciary Power, but there are many internal contradictions among them. That’s also why they don’t know who to put in place of Temer. Their ideal solution would be to take Lula out of the picture, make a transition government that the majority of the population accepts (it could be even led by Minister Cármen Lúcia) until October 2018, and then try to win the elections.

But their internal division also affects the candidacies, since they can’t manage to construct a candidate like Henrique Cardoso or Fernando Collor. They’re testing the public opinion, presenting João Doria (current Mayor of Sao Paulo) or Luciano Hulk. But the polls show they’re not viable and they know they would deepen the political crisis.

In this context, what can workers and people’s organizations do?

We, at the People’s Brazil Front,  which is made up of over 80 people’s movements and political organizations, are debating since last year that the best interest of the working class is in a packet of measures that complement each other.

First of all, to take the putschists down and suspend every legislative measure they have taken against the people. Then, having a transition government that calls to presidential elections on October 2017 and discussing a way to make an immediate political reform that guarantees that the will of the people is respected, and voting for a new Congress.

Another item is for the new government to commit to convene an Exclusive Constituent Assembly to build a new “Emergency Plan for the People” which includes over 70 emergency measures that the transition government and the new government will have to implement, which we believe would take the country out of the economic, social and political crisis.

During the electoral campaign we need to discuss a new model for the country, which takes into account the need for structural reforms in the mid-to-long-term, such as a tax reform, a reform of media, the agrarian reform and a reform of the Judiciary Power itself. But in order for all of this to be possible, the masses need to take to the streets urgently. The strength of the people is exercised there, in mobilizations, occupations and pressure.

I believe that over the next few hours and days there will be plenary sessions to discuss specific dates for mobilizations. On our side, we believe that next week is decisive. We need to camp outside the Supreme Federal Court in order to ensure the putschists resign and the corrupt officials denounced by Joesley Batista go to prison. We need to make mobilizations in all capitals and big cities next Sunday 21. We need to transform May 24 into a nation-wide mobilizations, occupy Legislative Assemblies, routes, everything. The people needs to take the lead and put pressure to achieve the changes we need.

Can direct elections benefit the country? How? Who would the candidates be?

Of course, direct elections for President and for a new Congress are indispensable for democracy and to get the country out of the political crisis. Only through urns can we attain a government that represents the majority and has the legitimacy to make changes for the people that also allow us to leave behind the economic crisis. Because the economic crisis is the foundation of the whole social and political crisis. The candidate of the working class is Lula da Silva, who represents the vast majority of the Brazilian people, and can commit to a project of change and support our emergency plan.

There will probably be other candidates, like Bolsonaro, who represents the far-right, and Marina Silva, who tries to attract a centrist electorate, but her real voter base is only the Assemblies of God Church. The tucanos are in crisis, because ALckmin is involved in several denounces. Doria is a cheap playboy. And the Globo network hasn’t had time to create an alternative, like Collor was in 1989.

What’s the way to prevent the backlash of the putschist agenda?

To mobilize, fight, and not leave the streets. We need to work in the upcoming days on the possibility of a general strike with indefinite durations. All of our social militancy and the readers of this newspaper need to be in a state of alert, since the next few days will be decisive to define the destiny of the country. The strength of the working class is only expressed on the streets.

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