Berlusconi? Ridicule!

Silvio BerlusconiImage by rogimmi via Flickr
Berlusconi is not afraid of ridicule, no doubt about it. In spite of his age (he is 74 years old), he regularly throws "bunga-bunga" parties in his villa in Arcore, outside Milano, with young, uninhibited girls, belly-dancers and the like, brought to him by newscaster Emilio Fede (80 years old) and others working in his Mediaset TV empire - "fresh flesh for the dragon", as his recently separated wife once described it. Bunga-bunga apparently refers to the fact that the parties end with naked dancing and touching (and who knows what else).

When one of the sex bombs was arrested in Milan - she is known to Italians by her stage name,  "Ruby Rubacuori", Ruby the heart-stealer - he didn't hesitate to personally call the police that very night to get her released, alledging she was Mubarak's niece (which she isn't - she's Moroccan) and that a diplomatic incident needed to be avoided.

One really doesn't know what's worse: an old man pursuing teen-agers, a prime minister wasting his time in all-night orgies with vulgar, easy women, the head of government pressing police officers for the release of a nightclub dancer using lies as arguments.At this point, he is probably the most despised politician in Italy. Millions of men and women protested against him in the streets last week. Yet, he won't give up in spite of a tenuous majority in Parliament that can only be maintained with the support of the  Northern League  whose federalist agenda most Italians (i.e. everyone outside of Lombardy) find totally unacceptable. Italy is about to celebrate 150 years as a nation-state and no one, except the League, wants to hear about Italy breaking up.
No, Berlusconi is not about to resign in spite of being indicted two weeks ago on on charges that range from paying for sex with Ruby when she was 17 and under age to abuse of influence of his office - a charge that is probably more serious for him than the one regarding sex that is always difficult to prove since Ruby vehemently denies it (she doesn't deny receiving €7,000 from him). Not only he is not  resigning but he is even convinced that if elections are held, he would win again.  And I would be very surprised if he turns up on April 6 in front of the three judges who have indicted him. Incidentally, they were picked for the job by the standard lottery system and as chance would have it, they are all three women!

And so he might as there's no one else on the political scene, either on the left or the right. Politicians on the left fight among themselves, and while there might be a younger generation trying to emerge, like the young mayor of Florence,  it is probably too soon for them to make any difference yet. On the right, it's Berlusconi's party plus the Lega. Gianfranco Fini, once Berlusconi's ally, used to be a third force but he has blown his political career by fighting with Berlusconi and developing  moral problems of his own. He has abandoned his wife and lives with a much younger "companion", an ex-model, who has given him a child this summer. As if this were not enough, his companion's brother became embroiled in a financial scandal, obtaining at a suspiciously low cost a flat in Montecarlo that once belonged to Fini's party. As to the others, Casini, Di Pietro, Vendola etc, they're too small in terms of votes to make a difference.

So what is Berlusconi doing? He claims he's put his finance minister Giulio Tremonti back to work. Hopefully that's true because Tremonti is one of the few capable politicians on the Italian scene. Meanwhile, Berlusconi attends parties, the latest one with the Roman nobility. As it was only covered in the local press (the Messaggero, the Corriere della Sera and Libero), I'd like to share the high points of that evening with you.

It took place in the Circolo degli Scacchi (Chess Club), located in a lovely baroque palace near Piazza del Popolo. It is the city's second social club (the first is the Caccia). The dinner was organized by a woman of the Roman nobility, a friend of Berlusconi's, who managed the invitation with the help of a club member (this is an exclusive man's club, on the English model). Only 30 people were present and the Club's president was not invited; indeed, he learned about the party the next day reading the papers.

Why would Berlusconi suddenly attend such a party when has never roamed Roman society since he came into power over 15 years ago (presumably to protect his privacy) ? Perhaps he thought that the veneer of such a party with Roman nobles - and with women averaging 80 years of age, according to Libero - would rub off him, giving him back a semblance of dignity.

If that was the purpose, it miserably misfired. The Libero has a particularly juicy account of how the evening went - and I'd like to quote from it. It seems that when Berlusconi walked in at 9:30 pm and realized how old most of the guests were, he said "Ehhhh, what beautiful women! So tonight, we'll have some bunga-bunga!" A musician, Maestro Mariano Apicella, played his guitar and Berlusconi grabbed the microphone, belting out a string of songs in French and Neapolitan and jokes.

The Berlusconi show went this way till one o'clock in the morning, but when he tried to get the old ladies to dance a rumba, apparently they all stayed put, presumably unwilling to risk breaking a bone. They clearly preferred to enjoy the prime minister's cabaret. And he kept going: Ruby of course had nothing to do with Mubarak, he told them, she was Ramses II's niece! And do you know why princesses have blue blood? Because they make oral sex with the "principe azzurro" (Prince Charming).

Upon leaving, he called out: "auguro una buona digestione a tutti!" (I wish you all a good digestion!) and stopped for a moment with Anna Maria Bernini, much younger than all the women present and a member of his party, who reportedly was the go-between with Roman society and instigator of the evening. "E' bravissima," says Berlusconi, "presto sarà promossa sottosegretario" (soon she will be promoted as under-secretary). Yep, we all suspected that's how he packed his government with young, good-looking women!

Before he left, Berlusconi belted out one last song dedicated to Gianfranco Fini. Based on a Johnny Dorelli song entitled "Montecarlo", it has one unforgettable line in Milanese slang: "me sunt cagaa adoss a Montecarlo". As Libero put it, this is untranslatable but I'm sure you can guess what it means (and your worst guess is the right one).

It seems everyone thought that was hilarious.

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Is Italy's Art Heritage going to the Dogs?

POMPEII, ITALY - NOVEMBER 14:  Works in progre...POMPEII, ITALY - Works in progress at the House of Faun on November 14, 2010..Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Italy is the cradle of European art and with 45 registered UNESCO heritage sites, it has more than any other country in the world.  While Italy seems unable to look after it properly, we probably shouldn't accuse it of negligence: there are more archeological sites, monuments, artworks and museums here than anywhere else, surely more than the Italian people can afford to maintain.

Then there is a more insidious problem: when you have so much, you tend to believe that this abundance will always be around, and a certain amount of indifference sets in...

According to the latest comparative figures from the OECD, Italy devoted only 0.8% of its public spending to culture and leisure in 2006, putting it 22nd on a list of 27 countries for which statistics were available. Roberto Cecchi, Director-general of the Italian Culture Ministry in charge of the so-called heritage department, told the UK Guardian (see article below) that "Italy has never spent enough on culture. France and Spain spend twice as much." Yet, as he pointed out: "France has 20 national museums. Italy has 400. In France, there are 25,000 protected buildings. Here, there are between 350,000 and 400,000."

Well...of course, these are just numbers bandied about. To start with, what constitutes a "museum" and what should be preserved? But setting aside such issues, there is little doubt that Italy has more than it can handle in the art and culture department.

Last November, when the government decided as an austerity measure to cut €280 million from the culture ministry's budget from 2011 to 2014, a protest strike closed Italian museums down for one day. Not much of a protest, really. Meanwhile, walls collapsed in Pompei and some 60 sites are on Italia Nostra's red list, meaning they're about to crumble down. Even the Colosseum is at risk, and the government has called out on the private sector to help out in its restoration. Nobody responded to the call except Diego della Valle, head of the Tod's leather business, who ended up sponsoring the whole of €25 million that will be needed to restore it.

I guess we'll have a Colosseum wrapped up in a Tod's shoe until the monument is restored - and that means probably for several years...I hope you like Tod's!

Actually, half of Italy's museums are kept open thanks to private funding. Though problems occur if you try to run particularly "off" exhibitions, like on the mafia: both in Naples and Sicily, the mafia has resented the honour, threatening acts of vandalism. One private museum director in Naples decided to take refuge in Germany, saying that the Germans were far more serious about art than the Italians. Reportedly they have not (yet) cut back on their support for culture. Naturally, the Germans are notoriously serious about everything ...

In my opinion - but do let me know if you agree - it's not so much a matter of money as a management issue. The Stampa,  in a recent strongly-worded article written by Giuseppe Salvaggiulo (published February 13, 2011) is very clear on the subject: "Bell'Italia, i primi vandali siamo noi - the first vandals are us"  In it, reference is made to a book that has just come out, "Vandali. L'assalto alle bellezze italiane" (ed. Rizzoli) by two Corriere della Sera journalists, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. They paint a dramatic picture, whereby Italy, over the last 30 years, has lost its primacy in international tourism, dropping to 5th place. The internet portal www.italia.it, which has cost millions of Euro to set up, is ranked 184,594th among the most visited sites of the planet (!). When an internet site was recently set up to promote Italy in China, the background music is not even Italian, the home page shows Bologna rather than Rome (because it was a cut-and-paste job on an Emilia-Romagna site)  and the text is often in Italian rather than English - but then, why not Chinese?

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Maintenance is next to zero: just one example, in Pompei, maintenance workers used to be 98 fifty years ago, now they are 8. And with only one archeologist. As to the mosaic repairman, he's retired and never been replaced. And the archeological structures that could be visited back then were 64, now they are only 23. And that's just Pompei. In Selinunte, the temple of Apollo, restored eleven years ago, still cannot be visited because no one has yet taken away the scaffoldings. Fewer people visit the Riace bronzes than go to the Pistoia zoo. There is a gasifier next to Agrigento, threatening the whole site. I could go on and on, as I am sure you can too.

It's no wonder then that in the last fiscal year, the Tate Britain has taken in €76,2 million as against 82 million for ALL publicly-held museums and archeological sites in Italy put together.

Is it lack of money to manage the museums and sites? Not really. One can find dozens of examples of wasted and pointless spending. Again Pompei as one example among many: €2 million were spent on ugly sheds that are supposed to be the caretakers and guards changing rooms...

The crowning touch? There's not even a general maintenance plan anywhere. As Francesco Bandarin, the Italian Assistant Director-general in UNESCO told the Stampa: "protecting art is not a luxury but an investment". Absolutely right.

So when are the Italians going to start doing it? Yet this is a country that can do extraordinary and innovative things if it sets its mind to it: like dig a 500 mt deep hole in a volcano and send underground sensors - in the caldera at the Campi Flegrei near Naples - for the purpose of  monitoring since there is a danger of eruption. The place has risen almost 3 meters since 1968, and this particular caldera is one of the largest and most populated in the world. An eruption here could cause millions of deaths, not to mention of course the disappearance of archeological sites like the Roman market that emerged in Pozzuoli from the bottom of the sea since the caldera pushed up the ground...This is a scientific project with risks attached - and some have heavily criticized - but for the moment, the scientists are pushing ahead, and might even go down to a depth of 4000 meters, unless they unexpectedly hit magma and have to stop.

Now, how about directing some of this remarkable energy to the preservation and management of Italy's cultural heritage?


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Obesity IllustrationThe road to obesityImage by Combined Media via Flickr
Have you noticed that diets never really work? I've had friends who followed stringent diets under medical control, who've gone to America for an operation, and yet, in every case, results were never permanent. Most disappointing! After a while all the weight - or nearly all of it - was back.

So, after watching this happen to my friends who tried all sorts of diets and never achieving any permanent result - actually slowly growing fatter over time - and finding that I too was slowly putting on weight - a couple of pounds every year, starting at age 40 - I tried to control this slow drift towards fat. I went for something else: I've changed my lifestyle in the kitchen! A different eating style is harder to implement at the restaurant, but you can fight the pounds off if you stick to ordering just one dish - preferably the grilled variety and no sauce - and cut out the dessert.

But at home you're in full control of what you (and your family) eat. And the first thing to do is review how you cook and adjust it in case there's a problem. And, noticing how most of my friends cook, I would say there's a problem: TOO MUCH FAT is regularly used. Yes, I know, that's what teflon pans are for...but what about the taste? We all are convinced deep down that an extra pat of butter or a spoonful of olive oil is going to add that indispensable extra taste to our food. Well, if that's your conviction, try to add it AT THE END, when you're finished cooking, and then only HALF of what you're used to.

Mashed potatoes are a case in point. Of course one shouldn't eat them if one is trying to lose weight, but if you really love them (as I do), why punish yourself? Just stay away from cream and other luscious fats and mash them with skim milk. Bring to a boil and keep beating with a wooden spoon to make them fluffy, then add a pat of butter at the very end, just before serving. You'll see how good your mashed potatoes are, full of fresh butter flavour precisely because you've put it in when you've stopped cooking and it's off the fire. And mashed potatoes are not that fattening: potatoes, by themselves are not bad calorie-wise. The problem is that they absorb fat like a sponge, and french fries, as everyone knows, are a real no-no...

Well, yes, if you want to keep trim, there are certain foods you have to eat very, very rarely: fried food and desserts. It's just common sense. But there's no reason to cut anything out of your diet: just eat less (or rarely) of the stuff that you know is fattening. But don't cut it out altogether! Do have that piece of chocolate or that whiskey and soda when you really feel like it! Again, it's psychological common sense: one has to maintain a balance in life and indulge in a few good things just to feel good...

Over time, I've developed a few rules to follow in both cooking and eating. Indeed, I find that my cooking is so much lighter than anyone else's that I don't enjoy much eating out anymore because I find other people's cooking often hard to digest... I thought you might be interested in those rules - and they're not that hard to follow, keeping in mind that you should always allow yourself a splurge now and then, just to keep smiling and stay on the sunny side of life! So here they are - a bit personal, sorry about that, but I find they work for me and I hope they might work for you:

1. Breakfast, as all nutritionists insist, is not a meal you should skip, but it really isn't the most important one in the day, and if you're not hungry in the morning...don't eat! But you do need to get a little something in you to face the morning's work: a plain yoghurt (based on skimmed milk) with a sprinkle of brown cane sugar does nicely for me, and one piece of toast with jam, and lots of tea (I'm a coffee drinker, and a big one, but only after breakfast). Plus an occasional fresh orange juice, but only if I have the time to press the oranges myself (I hate the frozen stuff); if you're keen on fruits, breakfast is a great time to have a couple of fresh fruit. Also breakfast is a good time to take all those vitamin supplements and in particular Omega 3. The latter is extremely important to keep your hair and eyes shiny and fight off the signs of age on your skin. Since you could never eat the amount of fish required for a daily minimum of Omega 3, take a spoonful of linseed oil (the edible variety, found in pharmacy). Sure, it doesn't taste good but the effects are guaranteed!

2. Break up your standard meal - first and second courses - into two parts: one for lunch, the other for dinner. Better the second course in the middle day because you have time to exercise it off in the afternoon. And by "second course" I mean either fish or meat plus an ample vegetable side dish, but, of course, you may not have time for it. Then reverse the order, and have it at night, sticking to the lighter first course for lunch. Living in Italy, what I mean by a "first course" is naturally a pasta, rice dish or polenta. But let's face it: if you have a whole grain sandwich with a good filling of healthy stuff without skimping on the vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes etc), you're okay. From a nutritional point of view, it's about the same as a good pasta with broccoli and sausages or tagliatelle with asparagus tips! Notice that I don't mention pizza: I love it, but let's face that's one of those dishes you should eat as rarely as you can: a pizza is a real calorie bomb, alas...

3. Try to cook with a minimum of fat. All recipes are systematically wrong in the amount of fat they call for. And, as I said before, if you really must have that taste of fresh butter, add it at the end. And put in half of what you usually use.

4. Eat plenty of vegetables - fruit too, but remember they're full of sugar (so more fattening than veggies). The way I balance the weekly intake of vegetables is to make a soup of pureed vegetables at least three times a week. And the soup followed by a small piece of cheese becomes a whole meal. And I do it entirely without fat, and I just use Knorr broth powder in place of salt - I personally like the taste of Knorr better (it seems more natural to me) but any other brand does nicely. Then puree whatever mix of vegetables you've decided on in your blender until creamy smooth. Try to give your soup a colour: for example, put extra carrots for a pink soup, spinach for a green one. Dont' forget onions and/or leeks for taste and remember to use at least one potato to ensure that the mix will be creamy. Also turnips are a nice addition or replacement for potatoes, making the soup lighter.

5. If you can and live in a place where organic food is available, do buy it. It know it's more expensive but there are definite benefits. First, it often noticeably tastes better, and that's a plus in itself. Also, organic fruit  and vegetables last longer on the shelf and that's a definite advantage. An organic banana can turn brown on you, and if it were a normal kind of banana you'd have to throw it away but not the organic one: if anything, it tastes better and sweeter. Amazing! Another reason why I like organic food - including organic or "bio" meat - is that I suspect that something happens when we eat the products of our modern agriculture, so full of chemicals/fertilizers to make plants grow bigger and taller and hormones to make animals fatter faster. I can't prove it, and I haven't yet found any scientific confirmation of my suspicions, but I do suspect that since "we are what we eat", the chemicals and hormones that have gone into our food have also seeped into our system, provoking an inevitable tendency to obesity. Indeed, the wave of obesity started in America, the first country to embrace modern agriculture and its fertilizers and pesticides, and it is now rushing through Europe and surely will soon invade China. The only country that has more or less resisted is Japan, no doubt for its cultural tendencies to eat fish and sushi in preference to anything else...

Basically, that's all there is to it. It's just five simple rules and not 15 tips like in the article below (a very good article btw, do read it!). They're just overall, common sense rules for healthier living - not forgetting to exercise of course, and walk, walk, walk whenever you can! But it does make for a sea change in your diet and if you stick to it, you'll see that you won't put on anymore weight, and after a while, you'll even start to shed off those extra pounds. The process is a slow one, but it (generally) works for me (except when I break down at Christmas time...) and I do hope it will work for you too!
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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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