28 September, 2008

Belarus & Realpolitik

So today Belarus is holding parliamentary elections. Belarus is a country with only the most tangential association with democracy, and these elections are likely to be a farce, with the opposition largely prevented from campaigning (sometimes by being killed), and the results largely known in advance. Previous elections in Belarus have been condemned in the West in the most stinging terms. However, this time around there are reports that the EU and USA are likely to be less scathing in their criticisms. It is suggested that they will instead focus on whatever scraps of democratic progress can be seen in Belarus, and that sanctions against Belarus' elite of unreconstructed Communist thugs are due for relaxation.

The reason for this is simple enough. Belarus has for the last number of years been a staunch ally of Russia. Recently, though, this relationship has come under strain. Moscow caused outrage in Minsk (the capital of Belarus) by suggesting that the country might want to pay something approaching market rates for the gas Russia supplies it. More recently, Belarus's leader, President Lukashenko, was slow to back Russia in its conflict with Georgia. The word is that the West is hoping to lure Belarus away from the Russian orbit, and if turning a blind eye to the regime's thuggishness is the price, then so be it.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the half-hearted way in which the West approaches democratisation in the Arab world. I reckon that Western leaders would genuinely like to see democratic regimes emerge in the Middle East. Unfortunately, they are also very keen to ensure that the Middle East continues to have governments who support Western interests. In most Arab countries, free elections would most likely bring less reliable elements into office, so the West mutes its criticisms of Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs. Friendly autocrats are preferable to independent democrats.

The West's feeble support for Arab democratisation and the suggested rapprochement with Lukashenko lend support to Realist theories of how international relations work. Realists see states as working fundamentally to advance their national interests. In both cases, the West has a sentimental attachment to democratisation, but this is jettisoned when it conflicts with core security interests.

A counter argument to this might be that making friends with dictators is ultimately an unwise course of action. In the long run, the West can benefit from exercising "soft power" – through the projection of touchy-feely liberal values and the promotion of human rights and all that. If the world is moving into a period of confrontation between a free and democratic West and a thuggish and dictatorial Russia (and China?), then some would see it as necessary for the West to not compromise on its commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights. Unfortunately, looking at recent history suggests that the West made that compromise some time ago, and it is not really in much of a position to lecture anyone about democracy and human rights.

22 September, 2008

News from Syria

If like me you are interested in Syria, the mainstream media can be a bit disappointing. Syria only really makes the news in the context of either Lebanon's travails or the Syrian-Israeli conflict, and when not much is happening in those areas Syria drops off the news pages. You also hear next to nothing about the internal politics and social economy of the country. This is not entirely surprising, given how authoritarian it is, but it does mean that reportage defines Syria almost entirely by its international relations.

One news source worth keeping an eye on if you want a broader view of the country is the Institute of War & Peace Reporting's Syria Programme. They carry a range of news stories not seen in the normal media, from a perspective broadly supportive of freedom of speech and expression. Their news is also available as an RSS feed, for people who like to subscribe to such things.

The IWPR also seems to cover a load of other countries and news items that are a bit underrepresented in the media generally.

The crazy world of US election rules

The BBC has an interesting article by Larry Sabato (politics professor in the University of Virginia) on one of the more arcane features of the US constitution: The US election nightmare scenario. He is talking basically about what would happen if the vote in November produces a tie in the electoral college, something that is not outside the bounds of possibility. Apparently the Senate then gets to elect the vice president (on the basis that the VP is the Senate's chair), and the House of Representatives picks the president. However, the House picks the president not by a straight vote, but by one in which each State's representatives have one vote between them (with a majority of the state's representatives deciding which way the state's vote goes). In such an election, California would have the same clout as Delaware, and the result could easily end up being completely random and bearing no relation whatsoever to the way the popular vote fell. Were this to happen, we may perhaps be spared the prospect of US leaders lecturing other countries on the benefits of democracy.

09 September, 2008

Egypt: Perv Capital of the World?

Egypt is famous for its ancient sites – the Pyramids, temples too numerous to count, plus more recent Islamic sites from the Fatimid Caliphate and the Ayyubids and Mamelukes that followed it. Increasingly, though, Egypt is attracting note for a less savoury reason – the country is increasingly being scene as one of the world capitals for male pervs, where women cannot walk the streets without being harassed and leered at. Over the last few years, there have been some particularly gross incidents, such as the mass groping by pro-government pervs of women opposition activists. There was also the 2006 incident in Cairo where large mobs of pervs used the celebrations of the Eid religious festival as an excuse to assault any woman unlucky enough to cross their path. But these seem not to be isolated incidents, but part of an endemic pattern of male perving. recent article in which some Egyptian women talk about as they go about their daily lives.

Egypt is not the only country in the Arab world (or the world generally) where male pervs are a significant problem, but it does seem a particular centre for sexual harassment and antediluvian gender politics. It is easy for those of us in the West to proffer lazy explanations for this kind of behaviour, with many no doubt saying that Islam is to blame for the ordeal Egyptian women endure. This is, however, simplistic. You would struggle to find anything in the Koran or the sayings of the Prophet and his companions to support the idea that women in public places are fair game to pervs. Likewise, I doubt there are any contemporary religious scholars who would see the assaulting of women on the streets as approved by Islam. In reporting on the Eid incidents, it was noted that both veiled and unveiled women were equally subject to attack, suggesting that the motivation here was not entirely religious. And the oppositional women mentioned above would probably have included devout women supporters of the Muslim Brothers, so the attack on them cannot be seen as some kind of obscurantist religious crackdown.

Some Egyptians quoted by the BBC have suggested that the country's problem with pervs is a product of the country's stagnation and economic dysfunction, with many young men unable to find the financial security they need before they can marry. In this line of thinking, their unmarried status leads to sexual frustration, which boils over into the harassment and assault of women in public places. I think this argument is maybe also simplistic, and it seems to make young Egyptian men into automatons unable to control their urges, but I reckon it does push the argument into a potentially more useful direction. Ultimately, Egypt's problem with sexual harassment is a social problem, and it may well have to be addressed in the context of the country's overall stasis and deep-seated gender inequalities.

Incidentally, it would be wrong to say that all Egyptian men are pervs - reports suggest that many of them are as shocked by the actions of their fellow men as people like us are.

08 September, 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: From Dictatorship to Anarchy

In the last post, we saw how the Congo suffered under colonialism. In the late 1950s the Belgian colonisers decided to end their formal rule, and abruptly handed the country its independence. Whatever game the Belgians were playing, the Congo came under the rule of the charismatic and radical sounding Patrice Lumumba. The Congo's big problem, though, was that it was a large and sprawling country created at the 1888 Congress of Berlin, with no pre-colonial history as an even semi-unified entity. Many people in the Congo had little or no association or identification with their new country, leading to secessionist and particularist sentiment across the country. The rich province of Katanga attempted to secede from the country, perhaps prodded by Belgium or the CIA. This revolt was crushed, partly with the aid of UN troops (including some from Ireland). However, its macabre sequel was the overthrow and murder of Lumumba by his own armed forces. The sinister Joseph Mobutu seized power, appointing the former leader of the Katangan separatists to a senior position in his government.

Mobutu ruled the country until the 1990s. His regime has been described as a kleptocracy, and was marked by the naked exploitation and brutalisation of the country's people by its leader and his circle. Mobutu renamed the country Zaire, perhaps to avoid confusion with the other Congo*. He also played the Cold War game well, aligning himself with the USA and acting against Soviet interests in his neighbours. This external support of the USA protected him from any pressures coming his way from any do-gooders concerned by his appalling human rights records.

It would however be unfair to entirely damn the Mobutu years. For all the regime's rapaciousness, the country and particularly its capital Kinshasa saw the emergence and development of a vibrant mass musical culture, based initially on bouncing ideas backwards and forward across the Atlantic to Cuba. More recently, this scene gave birth to the Congotronics music beloved of hipsters everywhere. Mobutu's role in fostering any of this was, of course, minimal.

Mobutu's regime may have been exploitative, but for many years it was also rock-solid, and the dictator was able to see off any internal threats. Mobutu's mercenaries crushed an insurgency by Cuban supported rebels in the later 1960s, and thereafter the regime faced no serious challenges. However, in the 1990s, following the Rwandan genocide, time ran out for Mobutu. After the Rwandan genocide, many Rwandan Hutus (including perpetrators of the genocide) fled to Zaire, and began to launch raids across the border at the new post-genocide Rwandan government. The Rwandan regime struck back by invading Zaire, in alliance with rebels clustered around long-time Mobutu opponent Laurent Kabila. Mobutu's armies disintegrated in the face of this threat, and his regime collapsed. Laurent Kabila became the country's president, renaming it the Democratic Republic of Congo, but his reign saw the eruption of ethnic insurgencies and civil war, while armies from Rwanda, Uganda, & Zimbabwe invaded in furtherance of their governments' own perceived interests. The DRC fell into a period of protracted violence of a scale recalling Germany's Thirty Years War in the 17th century. The death toll has been estimated as lying in the millions.

And that is it for now. President Kabila was murdered in a failed coup, and replaced by his son Joseph. He remains little more than a chess-board king of a country with a largely imaginary national administration. The Congo did manage to hold elections a few years back, but disputes over their fairness were settled by gun-battles in the capital. The bar-room-brawl civil war rises and falls in intensity. People keep dying, and the Congo remains emblematic of everything that has gone wrong in Africa.

image source

*A former French colony, often known as Congo-Brazzaville (after its capital) to distinguish it from The Congo.

07 September, 2008

So Not Gonna Happen

Rajendra Pachauri, a senior UN scientist, has suggested that people might want to eat less meat, if they are seriously concerned about global warming. This is something of a no-brainer - people eating less meat means less cows pumping methane into the atmosphere. It also means less pressure on CO2 absorbing rainforests from cattle ranchers. I suspect, though, that meat people would sooner cut their left hand off than eat less meat, so I don't know why Dr Pachauri is bothering.

BBC News report

Guardian report

Pakistan and semi-presidentialism

Pakistan's constitutional setup is somewhat interesting. Executive power lies with a prime minister who is responsible to a parliament, but the country also boasts a powerful presidency. The president can sack the prime minister and call elections, and is also head of the country's armed forces. Crucially, perhaps, it is not the prime minister but the president who controls Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The Pakistani president is not directly elected. Rather, it is the country's parliament who elect the president. This makes Pakistan a bit of a taxonomical anomaly. It is not semi-presidential, because every definition of semi-presidentialism requires the president to be popularly elected. But it seems problematic to think of the country as a parliamentary system, given the power over parliament exercised by the president*. And while the powers of Pakistan's appointed president are perhaps unusually high, the country is not unique in having an unelected president who is a serious player in the country's politics. Off the top of my head, the Czech Republic, Israel, and (to an extent) Italy spring to mind as countries where the president is appointed by parliament but plays more than a purely ceremonial part in national politics.

Definitions of semi-presidentialism focus on the direct election of the president**. This leads to the lumping together of countries with powerful activist presidents and ones where the president has a purely symbolic role. This is not necessarily that problematic, as you can then go on to ask interesting questions about why one directly elected president is powerless while another is the centre of their country's politics. But maybe in another way it misses something. Power is surely the currency of politics, and what makes semi-presidential systems interesting is the (real or potential) presence of two loci of power. By focusing on how presidents are appointed, semi-presidentialists look at one type of dual-executive set-up but ignore others. This does seem problematic, as you can end up analytically separating political systems that end up closely resembling each other.

If I was in the business of further academic research, one thing I would consider looking at would be some kind of comparison of presidents in countries where they are elected and countries where they are appointed by parliament. One thing I have picked up is that there has been relatively little academic research on appointed presidencies, even where these are players in their countries' politics, and this strikes me as an obvious gap that needs filling.

*this is aside from Pakistan's status as a country of questionable democratic credentials, where real power is exercised by a variety of entrenched yet dysfunctional elites immune from electoral accountability

**and their being faced by a prime minister responsible to parliament, obv.

06 September, 2008

Pakistan: The Lolz Continue

Asif Ali Zardari has today been elected president of Pakistan. Zardari is head of the Pakistan People's Party and, famously, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. He is also a man who has attracted numerous accusations of corruption. The Pakistani presidency is a powerful office, with control of the armed forces and the country's nuclear arsenal, as well as direct responsibility for the tribal areas that border Afghanistan and the power to sack the prime minister and dissolve parliament. Pakistan's president is not directly elected, but chosen by the country's parliament (where Zardari's party currently has a majority) when the post falls vacant.

Zardari's decision to appoint himself to the top job has caused the governing coalition to break. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the smaller Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz party wanted a compromise candidate, but Zardari ignored him and Sharif took the PML-N out of government. Zardari's party can govern without the PML-N, but the rupture is unfortunate, as it represents the breaking of the pro-democracy coalition that eased dictator Pervez Musharaf from power.

Since leaving the government, Sharif has suddenly found himself facing an indictment on corruption charges. No one is convinced by claims that the timing is purely coincidental. Like many Pakistani politicians, Sharif's hands may well have dipped into the till from time to time, but his indictment now is plainly an attempt by Zardari to crush a potentially dangerous rival. Zardari is fortunate in that he is covered by an amnesty issued by Musharaf for all corruption charges against him and Benazir Bhutto. The legality of this amnesty is questionable, but the comedy supreme court appointed by Musharaf remains in office. While in government, Sharif had campaigned for the reinstatement of the supreme court illegally sacked by Musharaf. Zardari was careful to block this move, lest the judges strike down his amnesty. So now Zardari is coasting to the top job in Pakistani politics, immune from investigation of his shady past, while corruption charges bury his rival.

Zardari is apparently considered sound on the War on Terror, so it is unlikely that any harsh words will come his way from Washington.

05 September, 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: From Colony to Independence

I have to find out all about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), because I am hoping to enter an essay writing competition* on that country. In the next two posts, I will quickly state the current sketchy understanding of the country's development. Prior to undertaking actual research, this is everything I know about the Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo gets its name from the Congo river. So does its neighbour, the Republic of the Congo. When people talk about The Congo as a country, they invariably mean the DRC, given the country's much larger size and position in the heart of Africa. Like most of Africa, the Congo was colonised, but whereas other parts of the continent were taken over by European countries, the Congo in the late 19th century became the private empire of one man, King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold managed to persuade the leading European nations of the world to let him create the Congo Free State as his personal domain, seized for him by the Belgian army. The profits of controlling the Congo flowed solely into his pockets. And the profits were considerable, as Leopold turned the Congo into one of the greatest slave states the world has ever seen. In so doing he disrupted the fabric of established communities and may have inadvertently caused HIV to jump from chimpanzees to humans, but he became very rich indeed.

It is worth considering just how bestial Leopold's rule over the Congo was. Thomas Pakenham's The Scramble for Africa contains a picture taken in the Congo Free State. A Belgian official stands with two Africans. Initially, it looks like a scene from any African colony, but then you see what the Africans are holding in their hands. They are holding hands, severed hands. Leopold's Congolese quislings would cut the hands off any of their compatriots who were not working hard enough for their European master. It is small wonder, then, that some estimate Leopold's African Auschwitz-Birkenau to have halved in population during his rule, through a combination of the locals being exterminated or fleeing into neighbouring countries.

Eventually, though, do-gooders like Edmund Morel and Roger Casement alerted the world to the horrors that Leopold was perpetrating in the Congo, and people like Joseph Conrad wrote novels about the Belgian King's African Gulag. People were shocked, with many feeling that Leopold was giving colonialism a bad name. The Belgian government moved in to wrest control of the Congo from their monarch. What was his empire now became the Belgian Congo, and was run as a colony something like the other colonies then covering Africa. This meant that, in a purely notional sense, the Belgians were committed to "civilising" the Congolese, but in practice they were interested solely in exploiting them, just in a less shocking manner than Leopold. The Belgians took care to provide the Congolese with only the most rudimentary of educations and to keep them as insulated as possible from modernity, lest they develop troubling notions of the equality of all human peoples. The Congolese were naturally excluded from any say in how their country was run.

The European powers were weakened by the Second World War, and many of their African colonies saw the emergence of nationalist agitation in the post-war period. This led to an increasingly number of African countries becoming independent. Or maybe the colonists decided to replace direct rule by indirect control of newly "independent" states through local stooges. The Belgians sought to insulate the Congo from nationalist sentiment, but in the late 1950s the colony was rocked by the sudden and unexpected appearance of anti-colonial unrest. The Belgians did not have the stomach for a war against the nationalists, so they beat a sudden retreat, giving their colony an independence that few had expected it to achieve so quickly. Or perhaps the Belgians hoped that a hasty withdrawal would leave an independent Congo so weak that its inexperienced leaders could be easily manipulated from Brussels.

image source

The story continues in part two of this exciting series.

EDIT: I've been looking at Adam Hochschild's book on Leopold's African Empire, and the white guy in the picture above is actually an English missionary. I reckon the picture was probably taken by humanitarian Christians, to draw attention to Leopold's depraved regime in the Congo.

*I could post details of this competition here, but I do not want any Hunting Monsters readers entering the competition and stealing the prize that will rightfully be mine. However, keen users of Internet search engines will have no problem finding the competition's details.