Libya: Too Late, Too Little for the Rebels?

This has been a hectic week for Libya. On Thursday, the French government recognized Libya's rebels and said it would send an ambassador to Benghazi. The UK was expected to follow suit shortly and, although Italy had at first declared such a move "premature", by Friday evening all the EU governments had agreed to "officially talk" to the opposition National Council and ask Gaddafi to step down. 

What about the US? 

Nothing so far. This may well be the first time since the Middle East crisis started that the Americans are moving after the Europeans. On Tunisia and Egypt the Americans were much faster in reacting to the uprisings - the "Arab spring revolution", as some like to call it. Why the delay on Libya? Perhaps because the US has already bombed Muammar al-Gaddafi's Libya once, back in 1986. Presumably Obama is leery of sending out the wrong signals. Arabs are notoriously sensitive and Gaddafi has been using every possible misleading argument in his speeches to his own people, including warning them of a return of Western colonization in Libya (!) 

Official recognition of the rebels' National Council as the legitimate representative government of Libya is about the only good news for the rebels at this time. They reportedly have lost a major oil port (Ras Lanuf) and Qaddafi forces claim they have retaken Brega. There are reports (by Al Jazeera among others, but reliable news are few) that the rebel forces are rather poor at handling weapons. They shoot up missiles and miss the incoming planes. The few military that have abandoned Gaddafi are apparently trying to help, but the general impression is that they are disorganized.  There are even some reports that they could suffer oil shortages within one week, which would seriously disrupt military activities.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi has shown that his planes can strike at pleasure and he is said to have billions stashed away, perhaps as much as 30 billions, which means he can pay as many mercenaries as he needs. It is said that he is paying them $1,000 a day. If this is true (as it is likely to be given Gaddafi's diffident nature: he's not about to trust anybody),then the purpose of the UN sanctions calling for the freezing of his assets is largely defeated.

As to the no-fly zone over Libya which would at least stop Gaddafi from bombing his own people, America  continues to hum an haw. Robert M.Gates thinks it's too much to ask for in military terms, too big an area to cover. With Hillary Clinton's (somewhat hesitant) support,  America is slowly coming around, but it clearly won't get involved unless there is a  United Nations Security Council resolution calling for it. France and Britain are said to work on one, and Italy has apparently joined in, but we still have to see a resolution emerge. Ideally, the Arab League and the African Union - both directly geo-politically concerned with Libya - should get into the act. 

One thing is certain: Russia is against military intervention. This should come as no surprise: Russia has always steadfastly stood by the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs, if for no other reason that it doesn't want anyone to meddle into its own Caucasus problems. Moreover, the situation in Libya is turning to Russia's advantage. It can now rightfully say to Europeans: see, we are a stable, trustworthy country, get your energy from us! Bottomline, Russia is the main (and perhaps the only) winner in this bloody "civil war" in Libya, to use Geddafi's term - but to the rebels, remember, it is a fight for freedom after 42 years of tyrannical oppression... 

The rebels hope for official recognition from all Western governments, but what about Arab countries? And what about Italy (Libya's former colonial ruler)? Why are they so timid? Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are next door neighbours and Italy is not far, and they are all three struggling with waves of refugees...Gaddafi, in his usual hyperbolic style, has warned that "millions" would swarm over Europe - so far they're coming in at the tune of 250 to 1000 a day in Lampedusa. Perhaps, by the end of the crisis, they'll be 100,000 as the Italians fear, but not much more than that.

The Italians in particular are those with the greatest economic interests in Libya. No wonder Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Frattini has declared that it was "premature" to recognize the rebels. He did add however that Italy would re-open its consulate in Benghazi that had been closed in 2006, following anti-Italian riots. Italy's ENI is the biggest operator in Libya and  buys up to 70% of Libyan oil. And while Libyans do not hold controlling interests in some of the major Italian companies and banks, like Unicredit or Finmecanica, they are nevertheless major shareholders. Including in some companies that belong to Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. Believe me, here is a man far more worried about Gaddafi than about his legal problems with Ruby Rubacuore (heart-stealer), the Moroccan sex bomb, the one who recently shook up the annual Vienna Opera Ball, the high point of the ball season in Austria, explaining to reporters that she couldn't waltz, but could "only belly dance". 

Gaddafi is no belly dancer, he is a madman.  Did you notice how his mustache looks just like Hitler's? When I did the drawing for this post (see top), I realized what a profoundly sick and emotionally disturbed man he really is. I drew him from a video interview he gave this week on the TV channel France 24, stopping the images on occasion to pencil in a detail. I am convinced he has a split personality. His eyebrows have an unexpectedly soft arc, belied by the eyes that spit out venom through slits and the thin mouth, curved down in permanent disdain. Consider how far he has moved away from what he was (and looked like) when he carried out his coup and ousted the King - a dashing and smart-looking young colonel in uniform. Now he's into his funky desert man garb, trying hard to fit into the image of a "loving patriarch beloved by his people". The trouble is his face: it betrays him. It has the Ugliness of the Beast...And he's a dreadful actor. I watched him all through the 80 minutes of his first speech on Libyan television when the uprising started. He stood at the window of a building bombed out by the Americans in 1986 and maintained as such, in tatters, as a monument to remind the Libyan people of what the Americans can do. A clever setting, if only a little too obvious. And the way he talked, going on and on, waving a book that many thought was his famous Green book but wasn't, and then stopping sometimes for as much as a full minute, without apparently realizing he has stopped talking - or perhaps he just didn't care. Weird!

Unfortunately, the way it looks now, Gaddafi could cling on to power for a long time yet. Because of the rebels' military weakness, it is highly unlikely they'll manage to take the Western part of the country and the capital Tripoli. They'll be lucky if they maintain control over the eastern part (which has most of the oil - at least, that's something for them). But if Gaddafi manages to bomb out their cities, then the uprising could come to an early end - like so many other uprisings that haven't made it in recent years. Which probably explains everybody's shyness. As usual, no one wants to be caught on the wrong side of the fence should Gaddafi make a comeback.

What baffles me, is why the international community can't agree on a simple thing: a no-fly zone over the eastern part of the country. Just to protect Benghazi and the other rebel-held cities from Geddafi's murderous bombings. Come on Mr. Gates, that wouldn't be so hard to do: it's just a coastal strip to protect, no need for a huge military intervention to cover the whole country!

Doesn't anyone want to save the poor Libyans who yearn for freedom?

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Blogging: easy? No. Fun? Yeeees!

Heather ArmstrongHeather Armstrong Queen of the Mother BloggersImage via Wikipedia
Not everybody can be Heather Armstrong, Queen of the Mother Bloggers. Let's face it, Armstrong  is an exception. Forbes rates her as the 26th most powerful woman in the United States after Oprah and right behind famed Daily Beast Newsweek manager Tina Brown. Armstrong makes a ton of money with her reported 100,000 visitors to her site, dooce.com, every day. Actually her husband quit his job to help out in the management of what became in the course of ten short, hectic years a real booming business. And all of this, of course, while remaining an at home mother with two kids and a dog.

How did she do it? Bottomline, she found an audience eager to follow her life trials and tribulations: readership jumped when she shared her post-partum depression.  Then she went on sharing all the troubles and challenges of an at-home mother, finding a huge audience. I guess we are all voyeurs...

Then she did a very clever thing: she turned the blog into a fantastic money-making proposition. That aspect of her adventure as a blogger may have been hard to manage at times but in the end, it came naturally, given the prevalent marketing/advertising culture in America. I'm not so sure the equivalent can be reproduced in a European environment.

More interesting is the question of why her blog has attracted such a huge following? Good writing, of course. She has a catchy voice, she makes you feel she's right in the room with you: it must be the way she actually talks to her hubby and friends. As I've said before: all of us harbour a little bit of a voyeur in ourselves.

Then there's the next important thing: in her posts, she tries to bring up a piece of information. Whether it concerns a washing machine or an experience with her child or dog, it's always something "new" or at least something you can learn from. Or nearly always:  when she doesn't, her captive audience can forgive her that. Because she's done it often enough in the past so that she's built up a faithful following.

So, if I may, draw the conclusions from Heather Armstrong's experience.  A major element in a successful blog is surely the ability to add a new dimension to whatever is said anywhere else in the printed press or other websites. You've got to make the reader feel he/she's not wasting her time with you - either because s/he's learned something from you or because s/he's laughed at something along with you. Some bloggers try to make you cry along with them. Personally, I don't think that's a very good idea, but I can readily understand that people who have suffered a death in the family or gone through a traumatizing illness will flock to sites and blogs that offer compassion and consolation.

So there are all sorts of areas one can blog in, from parenting to health care, from cooking to religion. But in every case, to succeed you need a special slant. Otherwise you won't catch anybody's attention, much less maintain it.

The rest - like pictures and links to related articles - is largely make-up. It makes your blog look better and Zemanta is probably the best tool for that. But the substance is still yours and yours alone.

And this is where I have doubts and questions. Bloggers appear to decide early on what the profile of their blog should be (say, it is focussed on all things literary, or political, or economic or whatever area of life strikes your fancy). And then they resolutely stick to it. They never talk about something else - never deviate from their main line of argument. These guys are focussed and determined to build up their "brand". And quite rightly they join a community of bloggers or like-minded writers and comment on each other's blog and site. Because, as Jeremy Myers points out in his excellent post (see link below), commenting on other people's blogs and responding to comments on your own blog is the "blood" that drives traffic to your blog (if I may be allowed the simile).

I suspect they're right to do that, but I don't like it. All sorts of things interest me, and I like to hop like a busy bee from one to the next. Why stop with one series of arguments? How boring! My blog is my own to do what I like with. No editorial policy here. Nothing but utter intellectual freedom!

I've tried to "clean up" my blog, sticking  my short stories and cooking recipes in linked blogs (see the right hand side).  I did that because someone (rightly) told me that stuff was too different from the rest and got lost in what I guess is a mish mash of economics, politics, art and sheer pig-headed opinions... As to commenting on other websites and blogs, I do as much as I can, but being so widely spread out, I fear I don't do a very good job of it. I'd need a 48 hour day to do justice to all the great stuff that's written out there!

So the way I go about it is probably not the best way to build up a brand.

Am I wrong? Should I give up all my flitting about and concentrate on one thing and one thing only? As a fiction writer, I find that nearly impossible to envisage: everything human interests me continually...What do you think I should do? Keep at it the way my blog is now, exploring ideas and events left and right, or stick doggedly to one single path?

Do tell me!


Can the Right Diet Make You Live Longer?

Nude artNude ArtImage via WikipediaWe all suspect when we're hitting that wine bottle and getting stuffed on fried chicken and chocolate cookies that we're going to die young. And dozens of medical gurus have told us what is the right diet to keep healthy: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, stay away from fatty and fried foods, cut down on meat and cheese, go for fish and wholewheat bread. And above all, cut your addiction to sugar, stay slim and exercise regularly...

Like that nude girl, what we need is NUDE FOOD (no fats, no sauces, no extras of any kind)!

Fine. But will that make us live longer? There's one guy out there in America who believes it will. His name is David Murdock, he's 87 now and plans on living until he's 125. And he's put his considerable fortune at work for him - Forbes' magazine ranks him as America's 130th richest man - : he's invested in a $500 million food research centre in North Carolina, next to one of his five homes. Food journalist Frank Bruni has a juicy article about him in this Sunday's  New York Times magazine (see article below or click this link). Of course, coming from Frank Bruni that was to be expected. Check out the "healthy egg nogg" recipes he's asked three New York bartenders to mix for him, although I doubt any of the suggested recipes would win Mr. Murdock's approval.

Murdock's North Carolina Research Campus, as Bruni puts it, is "dedicated to his conviction that plants, eaten in copious quantities and the right variety, hold the promise of optimal health and maximal life span." Murdock has a team of doctors working hard and using all kinds of advanced MRI equipment to study the molecular structure of food - like blueberries, to figure out what there is exactly in a blueberry that's supposed to be good for you. 

All this is laudable and there's probably a great deal of truth in all this, but not everyone agrees with Murdock's quest or thinks that it will enable him to live longer.  There just may be a genetic limit to longevity, and no doubt it varies from one person to the next.

But genetic considerations cannot defeat the idea that diet influences how well and how long one lives.

There are the macrobiotic diet die-hards, who combine meditation and slowing down their life style with eliminating all dairy products, meats, and fatty foods from their diet.

There are those who go for high-fiber diets and splurge on raspberries, lentils, peas and barley and oat bran, all foods that are said to be packed with fiber.

There are those who maniacally cut sugar out of everything and replace with artificial sweeteners. When told that diet soda could increase the risk of stroke by 50 percent, they try not to listen and hope new studies will come up with different conclusions. 

Then there are those (like me) who are great believers in the anti-oxydent virtues of omega-3 found in all sorts of food from halibut to linseed or flaxseed oil. Since I don't like halibut, I stick to flaxseed oil which is a lot less intrusive. You can even get it in the form of pills and pop them in, but I prefer the liquid oil I can see (I never quite trust pills and what's in them). Flaxseed oil is great: it helps maintain the digestive tract in good order, it provides the needed element to keep your skin young and your hair shiny. I have a spoonful of flaxseed oil every morning stirred into my (low fat, of course!) yoghurt mixed with Bircher Muesli and brown cane sugar (what else? Never eat white sugar!)

But I'm not going to try and convince you. We all know that nutrition is awash with medical studies and findings that regularly contradict each other.

Instead, I'd like to draw your attention to a very interesting study recently carried out by the University of Maryland that modestly tried to find out whether what older people eat makes any difference in their chances at longevity. Study researcher Amy Anderson and her colleagues examined the eating habits and quality of life of about 2,500 adults, ages 70 to 79, from two American towns (Pittsburgh and Memphis, Tenn). 

One of the study's main conclusions is that older adults who ate mainly healthy foods — such as vegetables, fruit, poultry, low-fat dairy products and whole grains — had a lower risk of death over a 10-year period than those who ate less-healthy foods, including high-fat dairy products. Thus, this study (along with other previous studies) support the idea that older adults can indeed affect their health and longevity by following a dietary pattern that is high in healthy foods.What was interesting was the finding that some people who indulged in alcohol and meat still managed to live longer because they apparently compensated with a higher intake of vegetables and fruits. Which makes sense.

The upshot of all this? Don't believe too much what anyone tells you and use your common sense. If you've "broken down" and had a heavy meal, don't worry, just go light the next few days. Try not to turn obese and exercise as much as you feel like and are comfortable with.

Because even a bout of daily jogging should be carried out within reason: (a) in a clean-air environment (and not along a heavily trafficked road like I've seen so many joggers do!); and (b) not so long and so hard that you look ready for the morgue!

So, I guess, the only real guide to health and long life at all stages in life is...nude food!


Turmoil in the Middle East: Will it Change American Foreign Policy ?

War in the Middle EastImage by Stewf via Flickr
Article first published as How Turmoil in the Middle East Might Change American Foreign Policy on Blogcritics.

America has to rethink its diplomacy in the Middle East. The revolution that started softly in a minor country - Tunisia - has now overtaken Egypt, a behemoth in the Arab world, and threatens to spread like wildfire to the whole region: Lybia, Yemen, Bahrein, Oman, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and even beyond the region, as far out as China (where a so-called "Jasmine revolution" was immediately quelched)!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this tsunami is that it hasn't yet hit other dictatorial regimes as strong as Mubarak's Egypt, like Saudi Arabia or Syria.  It may come there too, but for the moment, the attention of the international community is trained on Lybia. And no wonder. So far, it's the only country that has experienced a bloodshed that looks almost like a civil war, while Qaddafi shoots on his own people.  

Israel is understandably worried about losing its allies in the region and, overall, it is keeping mum while everybody else is speaking up.  Israel had signed a peace treaty with Egypt and another with Jordan, and for the last three decades, it has felt relatively safe. Now that Mubarak is gone and Egypt is in transition towards a new government, all the options are open. Including a rejection of the treaty, as a majority of Egyptians appears not to like it.

What about the US? Obama, in line with America's vision of itself as the champion of democracy, has come out very clearly on the side of the protesters, as has Europe. With regard to the bloodshed in Lybia, there has been near-universal condemnation, with the notable exception of Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador who have sided with Qaddafi. So far, the UN estimates more than 1,000 have died and 100,000 have fled the country. As might be expected, this has led to cries for sanctions - the UN Security Council responded fast with a resolution slamming sanctions on Qaddafi and his family: freezing of assets, interdiction to travel, arms sales embargo, and perhaps what is more important, opening the way to refer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC) charging him with crimes against humanity.

Some, like Senator John McCain even want military intervention though that's unlikely. The internal situation in Lybia would have to degenerate a great deal more to justify an intervention. Why? Because the international system - the United Nations - is firmly based on a principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of  member countries. If you jump into Lybia because you think unspeakable wrong is done to innocent people, you may be morally right but countries like China or Russia will not appreciate (for obvious reasons). Nor support you.

Actually in Lybia there is a good chance the country will break in two: the eastern part, with Benghazi and 80 percent of Lybia's oil  in the hands of the rebels and an increasingly smaller western part with Tripoli, where local tribes are loyal to Qaddafi. Unless, of course, the rebels assault Tripoli and manage to conquer the whole country.

So is it right for the United States to pursue sanctions against Lybia and, generally speaking, bang the table in favour of democracy protests? Surely this attitude is not to the taste of Saudi Arabia that remains the main oil player with 12% of world production. The Saudi don't like what is happening in Bahrein either: first, it is happening on their doorstep, and second they don't want the Sunni monarchy there to lose out to the Shia majority - and in any case, it is a tiny country, some1.2 million people...

It would seem that democratic change won't go either very far or very fast. Leaders have been toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, but that's only the first step. To actually bring about real democracy is a long, complex process. As to other places, like Lybia where credible opposition leaders have yet to emerge, it is difficult to imagine what could happen next.

So can one expect a sea change in American policy in response to so-called Arab revolutions?

I don't think so. Obama seems to have played his cards well so far. But he is treading a mine field. He can only come on the side of street protesters whenever it becomes clear that the leaders they try to topple are threats to democracy - like in Tunisia and Egypt. There are however a number of countries where the situation is not that clear, for example in Yemen where considerable pro-government manifestations have taken place in response to the protests (but the situation could change there too if the government continues to lose support). In such cases, American reaction has to be more subdued. Then there's a series of manifestations that are not real calls for a regime change but  only protests against specific conditions, like unemployment, poverty and disgust towards the corruption of the ruling elite, as  in Iraq and Oman. Furthermore, it is not in the American interest to go against oil giants like Saudi Arabia that have been long-standing allies in the region.

One thing is certain: these are not revolutions inspired by Al Qaeda-type violence or religion. They are classic middle class revolutions, led by the "facebook generation", young, savvy people with often a higher education and little prospect for a good job once out of the university.

How far on the road to democracy will the Arab revolutions go? It is obviously a very complex process. Arabs all look to the "Turkish model", a largely islamic country that has "made it", successfully combining democracy and capitalism with a moderate, liberal version of Islam. But it took 60 years for Turkey to get there, and its starting point under the iron guidance of Ataturk was somewhat different: it was a military, secular republic.

Can the Turkish model be replicated? Probably. What can America and Europe do to help? Provide technical support and guidance to develop democratic state structures and give aid to alleviate poverty and create jobs.

Easier said than done, and in any case, it can't be done if the countries in question do not request help...

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Sanctions on Lybia? Yes! But there are sanctions and sanctions

Protest March (oil painting by Claude)
Obama's first move was to call Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey while French President Sarkozy was there on a visit, and tell them he wanted sanctions. Of course, they both agreed. The very next day, the United Nations Security Council produced a sanctions resolution backed by just about every member country, probably a first in the annals of United Nations history.

On February 24, the minute all those Americans who wanted to leave Libya had safely escaped, President Obama bandied about sanctions. That's the favourite threat used by our political class on both sides of the Atlantic whenever war is out of the question.

One can only applaud the international community for its reaction to the bloodshed in Libya. Anyone who's followed the unfolding of the tragedy on Al Jazeera, as I have, will have seen Colonel Muammar al Qaddafi at his worst on Tuesday, February 22 in a raving 80 minute speech, threatening death to his own people. There can be no doubt the man is bloodthirsty, out of touch with reality and out of his mind.

No one wants to invade Libya to restore peace or save lives, so sanctions are the answer.  Okay, I can live with that. But there are sanctions and sanctions: only those that directly hit Qaddafi should be used; meaning a freeze on his assets, an interdiction to travel, bringing him to trial for crimes against humanity, a ban on arms sales to Libya. All of that is fine, but not a trade embargo that would only hurt the man in the street and leave Qaddafi unharmed.

It would seem the UN is going in that direction. For the sake of the poor Libyan people, I hope it keeps going that way...

Article first published as Sanctions on Lybia? Yes! on Blogcritics.

PS: In case you're wondering about the image on this post, it's an oil painting I did a couple of years ago: I intended it to be emblematic of protest marches, with a kid waving madly while riding on his father's shoulders. I've always been struck how people take their own children along when they descend in the streets, whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia or elsewhere (this particular painting was inspired by a march in Afghanistan). 
I have never been able to figure out whether this is very brave of them or irresponsible. I know I probably wouldn't dare to take my kids to march out!

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Lybia Breaks Down and Oil Prices are Up: Is That Unavoidable?

02_19_2011_DC Libyan Protest032.jpgLybian Protester, Feb 19, 2011 Image by messay.com via Flickr
Lybia is breaking down. According to some reports Muammar al-Gaddafi is hidden in a bunker in Tripoli and has unleashed mercenaries to try and regain control of his country. For the moment, no one knows how it will all end but one thing is certain: oil prices are spiking, pushed up by the usual culprits: speculators.

When will we get rid of speculators? The reaction in oil prices is idiotic. Lybia furnishes about 2% of world oil supplies and most of this to Italy that can easily switch to other sources. Plus, European governments all have emergency stocks for at least 3 months. Plus Saudi Arabia, which already accounts for some 12 percent of world supplies, can easily increase production at the drop of a hat because it has plenty of unused capacity.

Plus the pernicious view that Lybian-like turmoil will spread like fire to the rest of the Arab oil suppliers. I believe it's way over the top.

Sure, there are problems in Bahrein, but nowhere near the kind that has developed in Lybia. The democratic wave launched by the "facebook generation" - call it a tsunami - is threatening every dictatorship in the Arab world, but how it will play out is likely to be highly variable. In Egypt and Tunisia, we've seen relatively "soft" scenarios, with limited loss of innocent human lives. Why? Because the army was capable of maintaining order. Bahrein and Yemen, if handled well by their leadership, could play out equally "softly".

So far, Lybia is the only country that has descended into civil war. When Gaddafi's son, Saif al Islam, threatened las Monday that it would, I was surprised. Civil war? Of course, he meant tribal war. All around Tripoli are the tribes sustaining Gaddafi, whereas around Benghazi where the revolt started, are those tribes Gaddafi  never trusted. They have hated him for the past 42 years of his rule. As a result, the "Leader of the Revolution", as he likes to term himself, has never been able to develop a homogeneous, trustworthy national army and now there is none. None to maintain order and no one able to lead the opposition. For the moment, it looks like utter chaos. And there is only a trickle of news as Internet and normal news channels have been snuffed out by the regime. Indeed, Lybia may be quite different from Egypt and Tunisia: it certainly does not look like the result of "facebook generation" activism. Of course, it is too early to judge, but my guess is that we are seeing here tribal revolts.

If Lybia is such a special case, why the reaction in oil prices? Why can't the speculators be reigned in? In this particular case, I think there would be an easy way to fight them - and without resorting to the complex mechanism of regulation, always so difficult to put in place because it requires world-wide coordination.

No, there's something much simpler that European governments - starting with Italy - could do right away, with the stroke of a pen. They could adopt a system of flexible rates on the tax they apply to oil. Did you know that when you fill up your car at a gas station, government taxes slapped on oil account for an average 80% of the price you pay? Yes, that's not a typo: the real cost of oil is only about 20% (it varies somewhat from country to country, but that's the general range).

So why not adjust the tax so that price spikes in oil are absorbed? This way, one could avoid the detrimental  knock-on effects on the price of commodities and all traded goods, and snuff out inflation at its source. Naturally, governments would take in a little less money for a little while. But probably not for long (until the Lybian situation stabilizes). And the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantage: if there is no shock to the economy, there will not be the usual slowdown in economic activity which pulls down tax revenues. On the contrary,  taxes will continue to flow into treasury coffers at an unabated rate...

But, such a measure is probably too clever for our politicians. I don't know what's the problem: Is is laziness? Lack of imagination? Poor management?  What do you think?

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Dude, Where's my Europe? Why is the EU the Last to Speak on Tunisia, Egypt and now Lybia?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland, British politicianBaroness Ashton (British politician) at her bestImage via Wikipedia
What is the EU doing on the international scene? Why does it always speak last, after the US and the UK, and France, and Germany and a score of other European countries?  Why is everyone commenting on the Tunisian, Egyptian and now Lybian revolution and the EU keeps mum or barely mutters? Why is Europe such a pigmy in foreign affairs?

What's the matter with Lady Ashton, the new European Foreign Affairs Minister? Why won't she speak up? Why doesn't she travel? She was supposed to go to post-Ben Ali Tunisia and everyone got there before she did, starting with the Americans. And post-Mubarak Egypt? Same thing. She's travelling there on February 22nd but that won't make her the first: Cameron got there before. He shook hands with the military leadership - Defense Minister Mohamed  Tantawi and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq - then met some of the organizers of the Tahrir Square protest but - and that was stupid - refused to meet anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood. Naturally the latter were of no interest to him: among other things, he happened to be in Egypt to promote British business interests, including the sales of weapons...

When will our politicians ever learn that DIALOGUE is the basis for international peace and understanding?

Repression is not the answer, as Lybia's Gaddafi is discovering these days. On 22 February, he gave a despicable performance on Lybian television, theatrically standing in a bombed out building, alongside a metal monument showing a gigantic hand crunching an American fighter plane. That building was bombed out by the Americans in 1986, and presumably he hasn't repaired it in order to turn it into some sort of testimonial against the West. Wearing a brown desert outfit and looking appropriately somber, he ranted and raved for a full 80 minutes, threatening his own people with death, brandishing about an unidentified green book (no, it wasn't his green book but some earlier Lybian code of laws calling for the death penalty) and invoking the example of Tienanmen. I'm not sure the Chinese appreciated... Moreover he had the gall to pretend he hadn't yet ordered anyone to shoot protesters but warned that he would - and to think that so far, since the turmoil started, at least 250 people have been killed and according to some reports, much more, up to a thousand. Here is a man with blood on his hands who is truly out of touch with reality!

At this point in time, nobody knows how it will turn out, whether Lybia will descend into civil war and he will be ousted, but surely strong condemnation from the international community is called for. Within hours of his speech, condemnation punctually arrived from the United Nations Security Council and from the Arab League. Lady Ashton spoke afterwards to the BBC  from Cairo but didn't add anything to the statement prepared for her the day before in Brussels by the 27 foreign affairs ministers of the EU.

Naturally the 27 ministers in question had a hard time agreeing on the wording of the condemnation: at one extreme, the Finnish wanted a strong-worded condemnation and sanctions (not surprising, given the distance to Lybia) while at the other extreme the Italian called for restraint (even less surprising considering the proximity of Lybia). Indeed, Italy has much at stake and much to worry about: huge Italian investments in Lybia and vice-versa, thousands of nationals trapped in Lybia, not to mention that 27 percent of its oil is exported to Italy, plus the possibility of an exodus of "biblical proportions" of Lybian refugees: Mr. Frattini, the Italian Foreign Affairs Minister, evoked the possibility of 2 to 300,000 Lybians arriving in Italy. Add to this mix the French embarrassment about its own Foreign Affairs Minister (mis)behaviour in Tunisia  - she had offered Ben Ali help to control the protest, travelled in the private plane of a Ben Ali friend during her year-end holiday while her parents were signing the purchase of a hotel in Tabarka, the famous Tunisian resort on the north coast. Result: a much delayed and weak statement. 

Poor Lady Ashton! Institutionally, she cannot speak before getting the green light from 27 European ministers. No wonder she is mum and doesn't travel!

I'm truly, totally pissed off. I've always believed in a United Europe, I've always felt that was the way forward to put behind us, once and for all, the wars and injustices that have lacerated Europe for the past 2000 years - and especially in the past century. We were supposed to have new, stronger European institutions with a newly created Foreign Affairs super-ministry and an EU President. It was all getting installed in 2010 and we were told to be patient, that the new super-partes institutions would take some time before becoming fully operational.

Okay, we've waited over a year. That should be about long enough to start having results. Instead, what have we got?

Nothing. The EU President -  Herman Van Rompuy, a Belgian politician and a clever economist and negotiator - is remarkably low key. Every six months, we hear a lot about the new country whose turn it is to preside over the Union (now it's Hungary) and never hear about him - though he tries hard to call for "EU summit" meetings...On the other hand, he's another one who hasn't hesitated to walk on Lady Ashton's territory: he's just set up his own foreign policy unit in his office.

That does seem rather unnecessary, doesn't it, when Lady Ashton is supposed to put together a 7,000 diplomat force together? And, by the way, why so many? And why didn't she start with the beginning, i.e. develop a policy framework, so she would be guided by general policy principles regarding all the likely areas of EU international relations: Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Israel question, China, India, Japan, Brazil, not to mention the US etc? Really, those areas are well known in advance - no need to wait for a crisis to arise -, and consulting her 27 Foreign Affairs Ministers over the past 365 days (especially at a lower, technical level), she and her team should have been able  to discover common threads and space for her to move in.

Did she do this? I doubt it. I even suspect the worst: that our political leaders, Merkel and Sarkozy foremost among them, were more than happy to select a non-entity as the first European Foreign Affairs Minister. Probably the only dissenter was Berlusconi, given his liking for pretty women...But in the end, they could all agree on Lady Ashton since nobody likes to be overshadowed by someone brilliant, particularly not a politician...

I am really disappointed and very, very angry. What about you? Do let me know... 

PS. In case you were wondering about the title to this post, Michael Moore's fans will have recognized it: it's a take on his bestseller entitled Dude, where's my country?

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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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