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2.13.2011

Mubarak gone, what next?

Egyptian man
A great victory for the Egyptian people, and we are all so happy for them, but what next? There are a lot of fears in the West, especially in the US and Israel, that the Egyptian revolution will degenerate in an Iranian form of Islamic extremism, but in my opinion - of course, it's just an opinion - that is extremely unlikely.

Egypt is not Iran. 2011 is not 1979. We've all learned a lot since 1979 about religious extremism, and those who have learned most are the facebook generation. And that's the generation that has brought about the Egyptian protests that have swept Mubarak away. People like Google's young executive Ghonam who directed the Facebook page that helped coordinate the protest leaders and was jailed for 12 days, only to come back with words that inspired more protest the next days. While no single figure has emerged, the leaders seem to be mostly well educated young lawyers and doctors, many of whom rushed to Tahrir Square and helped the protest along - a secular protest, not a religious one. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood joined late and continues to claim that it will not seek the presidency or a preponderant role in the coming elections.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood likely to take over? I doubt it. It's very different from Al Qaeda. It's not a recent explosive terroristic movement. It's been around a long time - since 1928 - and it has evolved from what was once a radical start. It has become more liberal but  hasn't yet succeeded in cutting for itself a big slice in the political cake. In 2005, when it was allowed to participate in elections,  it may have reached some 20 percent of the electorate (but probably much less). Of course, Mubarak saw to it that its rise to power would not continue by banning it from last year's parliamentary elections. That was not a smart move: it is always better to have the opposition involved in the parliamentary game. But the Brotherhood is used to being banned and simply returned to the grassroots level strategie that have served it so well over time, like setting up schools or health care centres for the poor - all things that Al Qaeda despises. Indeed, the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda do not see eye to eye: Al Qaeda has nothing but contempt for the more liberal Brotherhood and its attempts to participate in democratic life. And if the Brotherhood did succeed in attracting a lot more votes in 2005, that's because many shared with the Brotherhood a  hatred for Mubarak's regime, rather than its religious views. Now these secular people will have other places to go to and the Brotherhood is not likely to continue in its role as the sole serious opponent to the regime.

So, if all goes well, we should see a democratic game develop, with new political movements, secular and non, vying for power. That is, if the military will allow it. Because that is the real question: will they act as a force guaranteeing the orderly transition to democracy or will they attempt to keep power for themselves? Let's not kid ourselves. The military has been in power in Egypt since 1952, and overtime, they have developed  strong vested interests, including a big slice of the economic pie (reportedly between 5 and 15% of GNP), running all sorts of industries, from construction to baking bread. And they receive American assistance to the tune of $1.3 billion/year. That's a lot of money to buy army  toys - mostly in the United States, of course.

Who exactly is running the Egyptian army? It's a conscription army, which means all males are called on to participate. And that probably explains why the army would not execute Mubarak's orders to restore order: these soldiers probably saw the protesters as people like themselves. According to the New York Times, and as far as we know, there are two important figures running the military. One is Field Marshall Tantawi, 75 years old. Known as "Mubarak's poodle",  he shares with him, not only an education in the Soviet Union, but a conviction that democracy is not viable in Egypt. The other is Lt. Gen. Enan,  63 years old, much younger and reportedly more "open" and someone who has spent extended time in the United States. He has gone to Tahrir Square on Thursday, assuring the protesters that their demands would be met. Enan may not be alone of his kind. Since the Egyptian army has been receiving American aid for a long time, it is possible that a new class of younger officers educated in the United States (rather than the Soviet Union) might make a difference, but there is no way of knowing whether that is what is actually going to happen.

At this point in time, the future does look extremely uncertain. The revolution could yet be highjacked by the army and hopes of following the "Turkish model" whereby the army guarantees the transition to democracy and allows for the creation of a moderate islamic party like the Turkish Justice and Development party, may well vanish.What is certain however, is that the position of Israel could rapidly deteriorate if Egypt's support for the 30 year-old peace treaty wavers (there are lot of Egyptians, including secular ones, who don't like it).

What is also certain is that America is walking a tight rope in the region, as it supports a variety of dictatorial regimes simply because it vews them as bulwarks against Islamic extremism. The trouble is, to the man in the street in Egypt and elsewhere, America appears as hypocritical when it talks of defending democratic values...


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2.08.2011

Are we suffering from Museum-itis or Museum Creation Fever?

Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos Airport, CA
The most bizarre museums are created nowadays - for example, former President of France Jacques Chirac founded a museum in the small rural village (286 inhabitants) where he was born, in backwaters Correze, to display the gifts he received during his presidency, most of them deplorable kitsch. And it cost the French taxpayers all of €16.7 million ($23 million)!

Another example is the Cat Museum in Malaysia with more than two thousand items, including a mummified Egyptian cat, the perfect venue for cat lovers of the world! Or outdoors eco-museum, underwater art displays and indoors forestry museum. Or the Hiller Aviation Museum specialized in Northern California aircraft history and helicopter history (see picture). Not to mention secret agent museums and erotically subversive museums: there's a Museum of Old and New Art opening in Tasmania, dubbed as the "subversive adult Disneyland" for the whole of Australia. Founded in 2001 by Australian millionaire David Walsh, it underwent a $75 million renovation and was re-opened on 21 January 2011 with a lavish party attended by nearly 4000 guests.

Then, of course, there's a plethora of Modern and Contemporary Art museums, not only in the main capitals of the world but in medium-sized cities and even small towns. You're simply not "in" if you haven't got your MoCA museum. Every collector worth his salt dreams of founding sooner or later his or her museum. The first step is storage of the collection (always too big for a private home) in a warehouse, waiting for the upgrading to museal display. For politically well-connected collectors, the game is a lot easier. The example of Carlo Bilotti is a model every true collector should strive to follow: a retired Italo-American perfume executive from Palm Beach, Florida, Bilotti donated to the city of Rome in 2006 his collection of modern art, spanning from Dali to Warhol. To store and display it, the city promptly restored a lovely 16th century villa in the park of Villa Borghese (I wasn't able to discover at what cost - does anyone know?) Now the Museo Carlo Bilotti has become a must for art tourists. Rome has given him eternal fame. What more could you wish for as a private collector?

Much of Carlo Bilotti's collection is interesting - even if I'm neither a fan of Dali or Warhol -  and it is, occasionally, a lively venue for contemporary art shows. But it is definitely, among the prestigious Rome museums, a very small one, a dwarf among giants, merely reflecting one man's taste and luck in finding art works.


Now does this really make sense? When I was a child, a museum was something serious: it was the repository of precious art work and/or of scientific knowledge and major discoveries. It brought together not one man's collection but many, not one man's views but that of the community as a whole. A museum acted as a general reference for intellectual and cultural life. It gave one a sense of belonging to a great civilization, it linked you back to your past. It was meant to defend and preserve a particular civilization's most important features through Time.

Going beyond the individual quirks of the ultra-rich who dream of having museums in their name, or of those who call museums what are nothing more than clever variations of Disneyland themes, there may be some honest attempts to create show places for historic events, like for example, the planned Museum of the Shoah in Italy. But are these really "museums" in the basic meaning of the word?

Shouldn't we start to use different words for such endeavours? Perhaps we could call them "Memory Monuments",  or perhaps even invent a new term based on the concept of "showcase" or some sort of "dedicated space". For example, "Experimental Art Space" for a Contemporary Art Museum, because it is not really a museum: not enough time has gone by to decide whether the art is historic or not. But to have a place somewhere in town, supported by public funding and dedicated to artistic experiments and innovations, why not? Just don't call it a museum!

What do you think? Any ideas on how to call a museum that isn't a museum?


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2.05.2011

Mubarak is a "wise man" says Italy's Berlusconi...Where is Egypt's "transition" really going?

Hosni Mubarak
The protest in Egypt is evolving almost as Mubarak had wanted, but not quite. He probably didn't count on the violence of the pro-Mubarak supporters that turned Tahrir Square into a scene of devastation and death. Much to the horror of the Western world, with the exception of Italy's Berlusconi who defined him a "wise man", a reference point for the United States and stability in the region...

Actually, this brings up another point: how perfectly deplorable Europe has been in this crisis. So far, only the Americans are reacting with a minimum of logic, calling for, in Obama's words, an "orderly transition, NOW!" Europeans echoed this statement only the next day and did so in total disarray, as shown by Berlusconi's comment. Where is Lady Ashton the European Foreign Affairs Minister? She hasn't even visited Tunisia yet and has been conspicuously silent on Egypt. She might yet speak in the following hours but in any case it's too late. The impression we Europeans all got is that Europe does not exist on the international scene. More recently, the Americans have suggested Mubarak resign and let Suleiman, his Vice-president lead the transition. This solution may not work: it has already been rejected by Mubarak's recently appointed Prime Minister.But at least it corresponds to serious diplomatic efforts.

How then did Mubarak play his cards? Very clever. First he made a couple of concessions:  he nominated Suleiman, his trusted Chief of the Secret Police, as Vice-president, thereby signalling he had given up on making his son his successor; and he announced he would not seek re-election in September. To round it off nicely, he made his finance minister offer an "aid package" to relieve poverty and unemployment and he promised he would "reform" the Constitution. He also let Egypt's prosecutor-general put under house arrest two of the most reviled ministers in his previous cabinet and a hated businessman.

Then he got the army to announce on TV on Wednesday morning 5 February that the "message of the protesters had been heard" and that now they should "go home" to resume "a normal life". Since nothing happened and people still crowded symbolic Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, he allowed  - or sent? We'll never know the truth - squadrons of hoodlums on Wednesday afternoon to dislodge them, while the army continued to sit on the side. Actually, this time the army did not remain neutral: it allowed armed men - thugs with knives and batons -  to reach the Square, in contrast to the anti-Mubarak protesters, whom they had allowed in without any arms. And the protest which had been up to that point a joyous celebration of freedom turned into an ugly battle through the night with hundreds of wounded and some dead. The exact numbers have still to surface.

Friday, which was supposed to be "departure day" for Mubarak was a repeat of that scenario. With an escalation in violence: journalists beaten and detained, one Egyptian journalist dead and the Al Jazeera TV bureau burned down. The authorities however made apologies and released the detainees. While continuing on Egyptian TV and on the partially restored Internet a counter campaign to make the point that the Egyptian majority was behind Mubarak.

Thus Mubarak sought to turn himself into a palladin of "law and order". He even told an American news channel that he was tired, that he'd love to go but couldn't because there would be "chaos" if he did...just as I had surmised (and feared) in an earlier post where I evoked a "counter-scenario" which, alas, has come to pass (click here).

Will Mubarak stay to manage the "transition" to a more democratic state?

My guess is that he will. But at this point whether he stays physically in his role as president or passes it on to Suleiman is rather unimportant. The transition has started, neither he nor Suleiman will present themselves to the next presidential elections in September (or so they say). So the protesters, no matter how their protest ends (they say they want to camp on Tahrir Square until Mubarak departs) should be proud of themselves: they really have achieved a victory of sorts.

But how much of a real "transition" it will be is another matter. Several things are obvious: power is in the hands of the military. Who they will support as the new Rais after Mubarak is not yet clear. Suleiman? Maybe, but he's not a young man and someone else could be in the background. How much the military will be willing to hand over power and allow the main institutions of a democracy to be established  - like a free press and a fully representative parliament - is anyone's guess. The military has been in power since 1952, and democracy won't happen overnight.

The West is universally scared of a transition in Egypt. First it was scared that it would be disorderly. Now, it looks like the protest may be reigned in over the next few hours or days. Most Egyptians would probably prefer to accept Mubarak's offer to leave in September. After all, it's just a few months to the new presidential elections. So there's no need to worry about disorder.

But the West is also scared of a transition that would be "too fast", since a secular leadership has not emerged from the protest movement. The fear is that there will be a take-over by the Muslim Brotherhood, who won 20 percent in the 2005 elections (prompting Mubarak's subsequent crackdown on it, banning it from the 2010 elections). Israel has terrifying visions of seeing itself isolated in the region, as it loses its main ally and the peace treaty signed with Egypt 30 years ago goes overboard. Elsewhere in Europe and America, the Muslim Brotherhood is conflated with Al Qaeda and seen as the source of future waves of terrorism.

How real is that threat? Not all that real, according to an interesting article in the New York Times  that I would like to draw your attention to. The article calls it a "bumbling brotherhood", who's missed, since its creation in 1928, every opportunity to seize power. Written by Scott Atran, an anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan and John Jay College, and also the author of “Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)making of Terrorists” (Eco Press/HarperCollins), it is a thoughtful article and should be read by anyone who wants to understand something more about the opposition in Egypt. Atran believes their following in a country of 80 million people is quite small, not more than 100,000. He points out that the latest errors of the Muslim Brotherhood have been (1) to join the protests too late and (2) throw themselves behind ElBaradei, in an attempt to convince the West that they have changed, that they've become a liberal, peaceful lot. ElBaradei is viewed by most Egyptians as someone who's lived abroad for too long and doesn't know Egypt. Reportedly when he went to speak in Tahrir Square, he was largely ignored by the crowd.

So where is Egypt headed? Hopefully, it's making a few steps towards democracy, tugged along (or is it pulled back?) by Mubarak...




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2.03.2011

What's Happening to Contemporary Art? Andrew Vicari as a Counterpoint...

Painting of La Marianne by Andrew Vicari (1980)Painting of La Marianne by Andrew Vicari (1980)
I bet you never heard of him: Andrew Vicari, now 72, is a British painter - of Italian descent as his name implies - and reportedly the 18th richest man in the UK, right after Paul McCartney.

I had never heard of him either, until I came across an article about him some time ago. Entitled "the Rembrandt of Riyadh", the article, written by Tim Adams for the New York Times, did not exactly exude enthusiasm, on the contrary. It tagged Vicari as the "last court painter, rich and not famous" who made all his money with Saudi princes and precious little in the West. It reported on a sale in Saudi Arabia in 2001 of a series of paintings about the Gulf War for "about £17 million" ($27 million). It also reported, with a thinly disguised leer, on a recent auction sale in the UK (in 2009, in Bristol) where one of his paintings, "an original oil painting with full provenance",  valued at a very modest £100 to £150, sold for a miserable £55.

The article went on to explain that "critical response is similarly patchy". While Vicari sees himself as the "king of painters and the painter of kings", most art critics are "less convinced" and one of them, the celebrated John Berger,  sees him as "of sociological interest as an analysis of where career promotion can get you, but himself certainly not of artistic interest. I'm not sure that in any other period but the one we are in could a guy have achieved what he has, that money, doing what he does with all those clichés."

Clichés? Mmmm. Well, once upon a time, Maurice Utrillo was accused of doing postcards...According to the article, Vicari attributes his lack of success in the West to "a mixture of envy and unfashionability" and he is now planning "a triumphant homecoming", with a retrospective in February 2011, in London. But the venue is bizarre: it will not be in a gallery or museum, but at the London jewelers Boucheron. No need to ask why.

There is little doubt that Vicari is unfashionable in the West and he is certainly not part of the contemporary art scene. Vicari reportedly sees Damien Hirst as a rival, surely a view that is not reciprocated.

Yet Vicari started out with a couple of winning cards in his hand: he says he attended Slade school and had Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud as his masters, and he claims that Francis Bacon in particular encouraged him to paint rather than draw. He says he rediscovered his ability to draw much later, and indeed I would say, judging from the few drawings I've seen, that he is an accomplished draftsman, though a rather academic one.

And here we are touching a sore point: perhaps John Berger goes too far in describing his paintings as "clichés", but there is no doubt that Vicari belongs to that coterie of painters that behaves as if they knew nothing of Picasso and the 20th century tsunami in art. Whatever Bacon or Freud - two figurative painters like him - tried to do is apparently none of his concern. Vicari's paintings are singularly unoriginal and non-experimental: his colours are crude and the "vigonades" (that's what he calls swirls of paint he splashes in the background of his paintings) are meaningless at best. His portraits are equally disappointing: they veer from the academic to fashion drawings, with little effort at explicating the sitter's personality or mood. For example, his portrait of Princess Caroline of Monaco, a well-executed drawing where she shyly looks sideways, is little more than a hairdresser's poster, with all those locks of  hair swirling in the forefront.

Which brings me to the main point: is there really NO alternative to contemporary art? Do we have to go from Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung, Tracey Emin's unmade bed, the "lousy tuna-fish sandwich" lunch at MoMA organized by Fluxus and Damien Hirst's $80 million diamond skull to Vicari's Marianne, a "cliché" with a "vigonade" swirl in the background?

Why has art today become such a desert? Even Damien Hirst acknowledges in a CNN interview (see article below) that when we are all dead, the one sculpture he made that will "defy time" is... his diamond skull - which by the way, he didn't make himself: it was put together by a team of artisans working for a jeweller. But then, we all know that art is not longer made by the artist: following in Duchamp's footsteps, it is conceived by the artist (hence conceptual art).

And that brings me to my final point: isn't the problem with contemporary art that it hasn't survived the very tsunami it has created? The followers of Picasso and Duchamp rushed through the doors opened by their masters (cubism which signalled the end of perspective; collages which opened up the free use of materials; the promotion of ideas, "concepts", instead of artwork etc). The trouble is that artists lost their way in the new artistic landscape because reference points and markers have been done away with, all in the name of creativity, innovation and originality.

Because without reference points and markers, after a while, you don't know where you're going and neither does your audience (if you have any). You can't distinguish what is good from what is bad, what is original and new from what isn't. But one thing remains for sure: art can still be fun and unpredictable, it draws crowds to the Tate and other contemporary art venues around the planet. Bottom line, the fun and irreverence are what sells it today. But what about tomorrow?

Will a day come when people grow tired of the lack of rules and regulations? Somehow, that rings a bell with what has just happened in the financial world, when banks, carried by hubris, collapsed in large part as a result of jungle capitalism, without rules or laws...

Without rules of any kind, is it Art with a capital A? You tell me what you think...

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2.01.2011

D-Day in Egypt: one million protesters in the streets ?

Hosni Mubarak...ExitImage by RamyRaoof via Flickr
February 1, 2011 was supposed to be D-Day for the Egyptian protest movement, calling for a general strike and a "one million march" in the streets of Cairo and all the major cities...Did it work out? Has it any chance to ever work out?

Al Jazeera television, which incidentally was blocked by Mubarak's regime along with every other major social network like Facebook and Twitter, is breathlessly reporting that protesters, whose number reportedly exceeded two million, are defying the curfew -  which, by the way, is set at a ridiculously early hour: 2 pm!

The hard core of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo have camped there since the protest movement started six days ago, and apparently plan to stay on, as people bring them food and drink to survive the night. They say they won't go away until the government is toppled.

How long can the stand-off last? How long before it turns into a blood bath? A Jazeera says 150 people have been killed so far, others speak of 300 dead. The police has been conspicuously absent and the army is sitting on the side, apparently doing nothing - even claiming that it sees the protest as "legitimate".

Meanwhile, on the international scene, no major country has moved, except for Turkey and Iran that have both expressed support for the protesters. Israel worries about losing a trusted ally, possibly the only one in the region. Americans are calling their citizens to leave the country and China is sending extra planes for evacuation. Moody's downgrade of Egypt's bond ratings has been followed by the other major ratings agencies, all giving Egypt a negative outlook. And the price of oil has been driven up, as everyone wonders whether the Suez canal will stay open.

So the stakes are high, as the Arab world watches with bated breath, wondering whether these protests in Egypt are indeed historic and will mark a turn away from military dictatorship in the whole region.

Our sympathies go to the protesters, there's no doubt about it. Mubarak's rule is deeply unjust, corrupt and repressive and we would all love to see him go.

But there's a counter-scenario, and I fear it has a rather high probability to come to pass. I only hope I'm wrong. It goes something like this: first, Mubarak withdraws the police and tells them to stay put while prisoners are allowed to escape from prisons and looters are free to loot. That happened two days ago, and it had an immediate consequence for the Egyptian bourgeoisie: streets became insecure, especially at night, while daytime, business was brought to a halt because of the continuing demonstrations.

How long can daily economic life stand anarchy? My guess is it can't go on for very long. At some point, particularly if the army continues in its passive role, there will be a call from the majority of the people for a return to normalcy and restoration of security in the streets. And Mubarak will come back in the vest of a saviour, restoring law and order. Because, as always, what we are seeing is (maybe) two million people screaming on our television screens, but we shouldn't forget that this is a country with 80 millions people - in other words, 78 million are at home, either afraid to be looted or angry because they cannot go to work.

I really think that is Mubarak's game. The changes he's brought about so far are all cosmetic: sacking the government and appointing a new cabinet and his trusted friend Omar Suleiman as Vice-president. While he is the head of the dreaded secret police, the appointment signals a change of some sort: Mubarak no longer "pushes" his son Gamal as his successor. Suleiman is seen by Israel and America as a "friend" and has offered to "negotiate with the opposition". And today, the finance minister is offering "an aid package" to relieve poverty and unemployment.

Yes, none of Mubarak's offers are serious and the protesters have clearly understood his duplicity. But what can they do about it? The Muslim Brotherhood has loudly announced it will negotiate with no one in government. Opposition leader and Nobel Prize ElBaradei, welcomed by young protesters, has shown up on Tahrir Square calling for "change". He seems to have rallied a variety of protest movements behind him, including perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is not clear what may happen next.

In the meantime, Mubarak stays put in his presidential palace, gaining time with spurious offers of change, that if nothing else, help introduce doubt among the rest of the population - those who are not out in the streets to demonstrate.

Let's not forget that this is a military dictatorship and it's been going on for a very long time: since 1952, when Egypt ousted its King. Egypt has never really known any other kind of government. The path to democracy is indeed a long and tortuous one...

So can change come about without a blood bath, just on the strength of ElBaradei's calls for change? How I wish it were so...Al Jazeera rightly sees the army as the key to the situation and reports on people and the military "kissing each other", saying we are witnessing a "new partnerhip with the military".

A new partnership? Mmmmmm...

P.S  In case you're wondering why I'm so fascinated with Egypt, I'll readily admit to having an Egyptian past: as a child, I lived three years in Cairo and witnessed the 1952 riots that marked the end of the monarchy.


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1.29.2011

Egypt after Tunisia: the same Revolution?

TUNIS, TUNISIA - JANUARY 23:  Rachid Ammar, Th...Tunisian General Ammar - The real father of the Tunisian Revolution (Image by Getty Images via @daylife)

I watched President Mubarak last night (January 28, 2011) with bated breath as he spoke for the first time on Egyptian television after a "Friday of rage" in which thousands of protesters demanding his ouster invaded the streets, torched police stations and other government buildings all over Egypt, notably Mubarak's party headquarters in Cairo, and defied the government imposed curfew that night.

All this in spite of the fact that since morning Mubarak, following Iran's infamous example, had shut down  Internet. The web was reputed to guide and hold together protesters, like it had done in Tunisia. But shutting it down could not stop that "Friday of rage", which was the culmination point of four days of uprising. No doubt it was boosted - and better organized - as for the first time opposition parties joined it, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood and ElBaradei, the one-time Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and 2005 Nobel peace prize winner and a major opposition leader. The day ended with reportedly the arrest of Brotherhood members but not ElBaradei (not confirmed),  at least a thousand wounded and several dozens dead (23 in Alexandria alone, confirmed by Al Jazeera on Saturday morning).  I'm sure will hear more tragic stories as the protest continues over the next few days.

The popular uprising in Egypt has thus many similarities with the Tunisian so-called Jasmine Revolution which apparently catalyzed it - but is it the same thing? And, more importantly, will it have the same result and culminate in Mubarak's ouster?

In some ways, it is similar:
  • it started from a long-brewing, defuse discontent, not guided by any political party, and is focussed on a few simple demands for change:  out with Mubarak and his corrupt, repressive regime, and more work, particularly for the educated young;
  • it is largely run by the young;
  • it was born and held together by Web instruments: the mobile phone, Twitter and Facebook; 
  • police forces reacted disproportionately and the result has been unwanted death of civilian innocents - nearly one hundred in Tunisia, several dozens in Egypt so far.
But the similarities stop there. Tunisia's revolution was allowed to run its course (some four weeks) largely because it was ignored by the powers-at-be: America and France have always viewed Tunisia as a small, peripheral country and a largely moderate one. They couldn't believe that President Ben Ali was really having problems and losing his grip on power. The French even made the gross mistake of proposing to send a team of experts to strengthen Ben Ali's police, just a few days before Ben Ali escaped to Saudi Arabia. The Americans seem to have been the first to realize what was going on in Tunisia and withdraw support to Ben Ali's regime. And that made the difference.

Another big difference in the Tunisian case was the army. One tends to forget it and focus too much on the role of Internet (to be sure it was important - but not enough by itself). At the end of the day, when the police was shooting at the crowd and killing people, it was the army that stopped them. It was the army that made the difference and caused President ben Ali to flee the country. And remarkably, General Ammar who guided the Tunisian army did not step into the political vacuum he had helped to create. On the contrary, he shepherded in the transition government. Indeed, on 24 January, he gave a speech warning against a "political vacuum" and calling for people to give the transition government a chance to complete its work, guiding the country to new elections. Think of him as the father of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution. And keep your fingers crossed that he is not tempted at some point in the future to turn into a new Napoleon...

In Egypt, things are playing out very differently. Egypt is no peripheral player, with almost ten times the population of Tunisia. It controls the Suez canal - and that means much of the oil flow to Europe; it has recognized Israel and has repeatedly acted as a major political agent in the complex game run around Gaza. The Americans consider Egypt a "lynchpin" of their Middle East policy and a major ally, the recipient of billions of dollars in aid ($1.5 billion a year). At first, they rushed to manifest their support to President Mubarak, and even on the "Friday of anger", the White House limited itself to "monitoring" the situation.
And after Mubarak's speech, Obama even called him to urge him to follow through with the reforms he promised. A call that was immediately viewed with disdain by Egyptian protesters.

But what did Mubarak promise exactly? In my opinion: nothing. I watched the entirety of his speech on Al Jazeera television (it's doing a fab job of reporting - the speech was translated as he spoke, line by line). Mubarak came on looking like an old, tired man, with hair died black (just like Ben Ali and Berlusconi - what is it about these old Mediterranean politicians that won't give up?). He wore a white shirt and dark tie, with the arms of Egypt behind him, lit up in yellow, giving him the aureola of a saint, or in his case, a Pharaoh. He rigidly read most of his speech and when he looked into the camera you could see smudges of fatigue under his eyes - a dead fish stare. What he said was worse than the way he looked. He told Egyptians that if they were manifesting in the streets, it was because he gave them the freedom to do so - nice of him! - and he warned them they shouldn't trespass into chaos - now, kiddies, don't overdo it or Dad will get angry! He told them he "understood" their poverty and would attend to their problems by... dissolving his cabinet and nominating a new one right away - the next day. See how quick your Dad is at fixing everything?

A new government appointed by himself, without any consultation with anyone! How can you get more autocratic than that? The absolute tyrant and he doesn't even realize he sounded ridiculous. Imagine for a moment that the major American cities have collapsed in bloody riots and that President Obama comes on television in the middle of the night to announce that he will dissolve the government and appoint a new one the next morning...Yes, that's exactly how absurd the situation is in Egypt. It never occurred to Mubarak that he had to open to the opposition and, if nothing else, at least call for a special commission to enable dialogue with the protesters.

As I write this morning, the police are firing on crowds and army tanks are roaming the streets of Cairo. Yes: tanks. That is the key to the revolution, just as it was in Tunisia: will the army support Mubarak? The police alone cannot re-establish order, it will take the army.

But is the Egyptian army loyal to Mubarak? Ben Ali lost control in Tunisia because he didn't trust the army and had tried to weaken it. Has Mubarak done the same?  He is commander-in-chief, and my guess is that he has made sure to maintain good relations with the army. With the $1.5 billion he's been receiving in aid from the Americans every year, it was easy for him to make budget transfers (even if he didn't use American money directly) to buy plenty of toys for his army. Is that what he did? Probably. I don't know and if anyone does, please make comments! Also, one has to consider that the Egyptian army is very large (nearly one million men) and highly structured and modernized. College graduates serve as officers: how many of them sympathize with the protest movement? Hard to say...

Whatever the results in Egypt and Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world where people have manifested their discontent, steps taken towards democracy will falter unless the major Western democracies move forward and come to help. So far that hasn't happened. Tunisia has been left alone to fend for itself, while elsewhere America has come forward in support of all the repressive regimes in the region, from Egypt to Yemen. Unfortunately, that is a very short-sighted policy, as it confirms the opinion already held by many liberal young Arabs: that America is not on their side. And not just America but Europe too, including the European Union.They appear to be on the side of the dictators, all in the name of the "war on terror".

A tragic mistake...

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1.24.2011

Belgium: What Next After Your Shame March?

Regions of BelgiumImage via Wikipedia
Some 34,000 young and not so young, marched for hours through the streets of Brussels on Sunday 23 January 2011, carrying slogans putting to shame the political class for not having formed a government.The streets of the city centre were filled with flags and funny hats, making for nice photos that rebounded around the planet, surprising most people.

What, the jolly, beer-drinking Belgians, ever so peace-loving, are getting angry at their government, or rather, lack of it? The day before, a popular Belgian actor had vowed he wouldn't shave until a government was formed, and everybody thought that was "une bonne blague belge", a good Belgian joke: More and more beards in the street until finally politicians would deign to come together and form a government. Ha, et vive la barbe! Meantime, financial market are getting increasingly nervous, gossip about Belgium's sovereign debt is on the rise, and everyone wonders what will happen to Brussels, the seat of the European Union Commission and of Nato.

The Sunday Shame March may have been a turning point for Belgium, the one European country that is enmeshed in a political mess that has no comparison anywhere else in Western Europe. Seven months without a government - since the 13 June 2010 elections.  Something of a record, putting Belgium right behind Iraq in terms of the numbers of days it takes to form a government!

Why? In this case, I was baffled.

So far I haven't blogged about Belgium although I was born in Brussels and I still carry a Belgian passport - many of my friends have been asking me to do so, but I've always shied away from the subject. That may come as a surprise to most of you, since I happily blog away about all sorts of issues without apparently worrying too much about the amount of authority I may be able to command. But I always trust my instinct and try to make (hopefully) intelligent analyses of the situation before setting out to write about it.

So I did my research. Like everybody, I roughly knew what the country's division was about (I'd heard my father - a Belgian diplomat - countless times, as he explained it around to family and friends). It has its historical roots in 1830 when Belgium was created. Why was it created as a unified country in the first place? Good question. Because, culturally and language-wise, it is obvious that the Flemish part should have gone to the Netherlands, and the French part (Wallonia) to France, and the third little bit up in the north-east corner, to a German state. If that didn't happen, it is partly Talleyrand's doing: he embarked on a particularly subtle and complex negotiation with the then European powers when he was Ambassador of France in London. And he was very proud of himself when the result was the birth of Belgium, conceived as an "état-tampon" or buffer state to protect France from northern invasions (of course, we all know how well that worked out later...).

So what brought Belgium together and held it together up to our time? Two forces: the monarchy and religion. Yes, Belgians are very attached to their King and they are (mostly) Catholic, while their neighbours to the north are Protestants. Now both forces are in decline, especially the Catholic Church since its pedophilia scandals. The King apparently is still doing okay and trying his best to bring about a government.

When did things go really wrong? A long time ago, as the balance of economic power slowly switched through the 20th century, from French-speaking Wallonia, once the star region, with a flourishing industry based on coal-mining to Flanders. Once a backward, agricultural area, Flanders became increasingly important, with a rising population and a growing international port: Antwerp. With the closing of the coal mines in the 1950s, the power balance reversed, and Flanders became the star region, with more people, 6 million to Wallonia's four.

When did things start to sour up real bad? I'm  not sure, but as far as I can make out, it must have begun back in the 1960s. I'll never forget my father's surprise, and hurt feeling, when he - who was at the time an experienced diplomat in his fifties, posted at the United Nations in New York - was asked by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to demonstrate his proficiency in Flemish by... taking a test in Flemish! Which he passed, of course. From the 1960s onwards, the country proceeded on its road to division, with three official languages (French, Flemish and German), regional administrations and creation of Brussels as an autonomous region - a perennial source of irritation since Brussels also happens to be the historical capital of Flanders (on the map it's the blue patch: as you can see, it's within the borders of Flanders).

You'd think that in our day and age, a Federal solution shouldn't be so hard to find. After all, this is a peaceful area, World War II was over 65 years ago. What's the problem?

Bottomline, it's a money problem. As always, people will fight to the death when money is the bone of contention. Compared to booming Flanders, Wallonia is a poor area in need of remedial social security and employment measures - they are costly and can only be financed if tax revenues are transfered from Flanders, something that drives the Flemish mad. Some of the anger is understandable: after all, when Wallonia was rich, Flanders was  the butt of endless, tasteless jokes, none of which helped civil conviviality. Now the balance is leaning the other way, and the Flemish mean to get back at the Walloons. The 13 June 2010 elections reinforced the Flemish desire for independance, particularly the success of its N-VA, the New Flemish Alliance party, with 1.2 million followers. The N-VA has dragged along the old Flemish Christian Democratic party and some others, so that now you've got about 45% of the Flemish electorate who'd like to see Flanders secede from Belgium.

That, of course, also means that you have a majority (55%) who don't. Belgium still means one country to most Belgians. And that was what the Shame March of this past Sunday was supposed to mean. Started by five "dudes" (read: French-speaking and Flemish students) on Facebook, calling for the Sunday march, it's not a political movement. Just a web generation manifestation - joined in by quite a few older people, judging from the photos.

To try to understand more about this march and where it might eventually lead - because remarkably enough, journalists around the world, while reporting on the Shame March all shied away from analysis - I had to turn directly (oh, the wonders of Internet!) to the Belgian press: La Libre Belgique, Le Soir and a series of Flemish papers. It was interesting to see how differently commentators reacted: in the French-speaking press with favour, while the Flemish were more contained, agreeing that the political class should show more interest in moving negotiations forward but wondering where it might all lead, actually implying it was leading nowhere(!).

Okay, the Flemish are looking at this street protest with a jaundiced eye. A quick survey commissioned by Le Soir, reported (from just walking around the participants in the march - some 1000 were included in the sample) that only 21 percent came from Flanders, 35 percent from Wallonia and the rest (44%) from Brussels. Is 21% so little, emerging as it did in a "spontaneous" protest? An N-VA spokesman immediately noted that "one should recognize these differences and give more autonomy to Federal entities".

So the answer on the Flemish side is always the same: more autonomy. In short, what we have here is an extraordinary breakdown in communications. Why?

Roaming around the Belgian blogosphere and Internet, I believe I've finally come across the reason. Simple: Belgium, unlike other democracries around the world, has DIFFERENT parties in each region. Yes, you read this right: for instance, the Christian Democrats in Belgium are not a single party but two, one for the Flemish side, the other for the Walloon, and they don't speak to each other. They don't coordinate, they are two distinct parties in every way.

Amazing! It would be like having in the United States a Republican party that was only allowed to operate, say, in the South, and the Democrats in the North. Don't be surprised if that would result in another War of Secession - of course, that is exactly what is happening in Belgium (without gunshots, thank God!) And to make matters worse, the political shading of Belgium is very different: the Flemish are on the conservative and extreme right, while Wallonia has gone pinkish, mostly on the left.

When shall the two ever meet? In my view, it will take more than one Shame March to bring a modicum of common sense to the Belgian political class...Or the creation of a single "unity" party to cover the whole of Belgium, but that doesn't appear to be in the works.
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1.21.2011

Tunisia: Where is Your Jasmine Revolution Going?

TUNIS, TUNISIA - JANUARY 20:  Tunisians protes...January 20 2011 Protests in front of the RCD party HQImage by Getty Images via @daylife
When the long-time autocratic President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled Tunisia last week after weeks of riotous street protests and one hundred dead, everybody was surprised. First, at how quickly Ben Ali vanished - and still no one tells us where he's gone to. France? Probably not, the French denied him entry. But then where?  For the moment, his assets are frozen and there aren't probably too many places for him to go to, except the usual ones for people like him...

The other ground for surprise was Tunisia's image as a quiet country where tourists are safe to enjoy sun, sea and golf. A sort of peaceful Muslim version of the Spanish coast, with a nice, growing economy.

How could anything go wrong here? All went well until 2009 when Italy and Spain - both Tunisia's main markets - were hit by the Great Recession. Then the recession ricocheted back to Tunisia, and economic woes, particularly in the poorer areas in the centre of the country, set the stage for the insurrection. The classic spark that set fire to the whole place.

But the fire has been long simmering underneath a false appearance of peace. This was a revolution some 20 years in the making, stoked by a highly repressive and corrupt government that hadn't hesitated to ban the only serious opposition party, the islamist al Nahda movement or Renaissance party, back in...1991 - mainly because it had gained some 20 percent of the votes in the 1989 elections that had confirmed Ben Ali in power: too much for comfort. Ben Ali has always used fear of religious extremism, especially after 9/11, and in particular militant Islam, as his main excuse to crack down on opposition parties.

An excuse French and American diplomacy pretended to believe in, while they closed an eye on the repression which increased when a new anti-terror law was passed in 2003. According to a 2006 Human Rights Watch report, while some 1700 political prisoners were released that year, they were given a particularly hard time once outside, with the police closely monitoring them. They were denied passports and most jobs, and those who dared to speak out against the repression were threatened with re-arrest: the definition of terrorism under the 2003 law was so broad that it could be used to prosecute even when people merely exercised their right to dissent. In short, what awaited any dissenter was civilian death.

So I was wondering when the international press would come to grips with the central issue here: the freedom of expression. It happened today with an excellent article in the New York Times, entitled "Opposition in Tunisia Finds Chance for Rebirth", which tries to assess the chances for the banned Al Nahda party to make a comeback.

You might have expected that assessment to have come from Al Jazeera, but no. So far, the Qatar-financed TV has been true to its anti-authoritarian image and its reporting has focussed on violent protest, particularly "if it bleeds, it leads" but has been short on analysis. That, of course, is actually normal for TV as a news medium: there are always more images than analysis - which, in this particular case, makes Al Jazeera a potentially dangerous conduit to spread anger and protest among Arab states similar to Tunisia, or who see themselves as similar. But that's another question for another post.

What I'd like to address here is: what are the chances that Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" (or Palm Date revolution as some have called it) will lay the ground for democracy?

The chances are slim: opposition parties are weak and Al Nahda was decapitated and hunted down for so long that no one really knows how much of a solid following it has. Or even how democratic and liberal it is, though there are claims that it is at least as, or more liberal than the Justice and Development party, the Turkish Islamist party now ruling Turkey.

The idea of a liberal, democratic Al Nahda doesn't convince everybody. There's general agreement that Al Qaeda - although it is trying hard these days - will not succeed in recruiting much of Tunisia's youth in its ranks because of the country's cultural tradition of peace and respect for human life. But islamic extremism cannot be entirely ruled out. At least some form of it. It is worth recalling in this connection that Al Nahda was the brain child of intellectual radicals back in the 1950s and 1960s, men who felt close to the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood. Initially established as Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI) in 1981, with the objective to give a role to Islam in Tunisian politics and obtain an Islamic constitution, it became more moderate over time. Particularly when it changed its name to the current one in 1988 and signed with Ben Ali a "National Pact" which sought to separate religion from politics, in preparation to the 1989 elections. So it denied its MTI origins, but for how long? The fact that Ben Ali banned it after the elections, jailed its historic leader (Rached Ghannouchi) and sent him into exile (he's now in London, waiting to return) must have had a negative fallout: one possible outcome would have been a return of Al Nahda to its radical origins. Current militants interviewed by the NYT claim that is not the case, but who knows...

Yet, without a vigorous opposition and one that is respectful of democratic rules, it is difficult to see how Tunisia can progress towards a full democracy. Ben Ali's party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), is hopeless and should probably be dismantled. To be replaced by what? There's no easy answer, as demonstrated by the wobbly "unity government" hastily put in place by RCD politicians once Ben Ali had fled. Within hours, the three opposition leaders co-opted in this government (to unimportant ministerial jobs, that is true), had resigned. The objective of this new government is to "help the transition" and "prepare new elections". So far 1800 political prisoners have been released, so it is moving in the right direction. But an amnesty law still needs to be passed before Al Nahda can be re-instated as an operational party.

All this however are details. The fundamental problem is that most of the political class has been tainted by the RCD. Other forces in society are the trade unions and the military. Indeed, if the new government fails in its task of ferrying the country to democracy, the military are likely to move in - basically, following the Turkish model, that has only recently been upended by Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development party. What about the trade unions? I'll admit my ignorance: if anyone has information, please make comments!

What I am convinced of is that Tunisia is to a large extent a case apart. There's much enthusiasm in Arab countries - and several people have set themselves on fire, hoping to emulate Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution which is supposed to have started with just such a self-immolation. But in fact, Tunisia had what practically no other country in the region has: a large, well-educated middle class, thorougly familiar with French liberal ideas.

So the Jasmine Revolution is not easily exportable. And my hope is that Tunisian cultural traditions, deeply rooted in liberalism as they are, will carry the day and make a real democracy possible.

Post-scriptum: In case you're wondering why I have followed the Tunisian case in so much depth, the explanation is that I happen to be finishing a novel where the protagonist, the rich, fat and bored wife of an expat banker living in Rome, has a wild affair with a fascinating Tunisian. Naturally I had to have Al Nahda enter the picture - fiction is fun only if it is way out, right? So I did a lot of research, and when the rioting broke out in Tunisia, I watched TV, fascinated, wondering when Al Nahda would come out of the woodwork...


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