15 December, 2011

Non People

US Presidential election candidate Newt Gingrich has made the astonishing claim that the Palestinians are an "invented" people. His claim is not a particularly new one; back in 1969, Israel's then prime minister Golda Meir commented that there was no such thing as the Palestinian people. In fairness to people who make these outlandish claims, they are not asserting that the various people who are described by themselves or others as Palestinians do not exist, but rather that any Palestinian identity is an artificial construct and so that Palestinians do not have any national rights as Palestinians, but only as members of a wider Arab nation. Meir and Gingrich assert that Palestinians did not exist as a distinct self-conscious national group in the past, and so they argue that it is wrong to consider them as a distinct nationality now. Gingrich now is using the same line of argument as Meir to argue for an uncompromisingly hard line position with regard to the self-described Palestinians.

As an argument, the Gingrich position is not without its problems. For one thing, it seems to assume that there is such a thing as permanent and fixed national identities – that if your ancestors think of themselves as members of a particular national group then you too are part of that group whether you like it or not. It ignores the somewhat made-up nature of all national identities and blithely ignores the extent to which any kind of national identity is a feature of the modern world. And of course, there is another side to it that makes it problematic as an argument to bolster a hard-line Israeli position – if Palestinian identity is largely a product of history and politics since the start of the Zionist project, then the same is true of any kind of Israeli identity. The 19th century ancestors of today's Palestinians may not have thought of themselves as making up a Palestinian nation, but the 19th century ancestors of today's Jewish citizens of Israel would not have thought of themselves as Israelis either. If the Palestinians are fictional then so are their Israelis.

Gingrich is of course not interested in the finer points of where national identity comes from and how it develops. He is just a slimy politician trying to win an election by adopting a position of uncompromising support for Israel that will play well with some sections of the US public. If the Palestinians are a non-people then there is no need for Israel to reach any kind of compromise with them. This kind of argument plays well with the right wing supporters of Israel in the USA, or so Gingrich hopes.

As is often the case, this is another instance of Israel's US supporters taking a more extreme position than the mainstream of Israeli opinion. The Israeli centre of political gravity is skewed towards a nationalist right that would be off the scale in most Western countries, but by virtue of having to actually live in the Middle East the positions of the Israeli public tends to be a bit more nuanced than their more shrill supporters in the United States. Israelis who have actually spent time in their armed forces occupying Palestinian territory would find laughable the contention of Mr Gingrich that there is no Palestinian people, regardless of whether they want them to exist or not.

Some links:

Palestinians are an invented people, says Newt Gingrich (Guardian)

Arab League condemns Gingrich's remarks on Palestinians (Guardian)

Newt Gingrich may be able to occupy Palestine, but Israel can't (Bradley Burston writing in Ha'aretz)

17 September, 2011

Palestine's bid for UN membership

In the near future the United Nations will receive an application for membership from a new country – the country of Palestine. The bid for UN membership is being made by the group surrounding Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Their proposal is to create a Palestinian state on those parts of historic Palestine that were not occupied by Israel until 1967 – that is, the territories we know as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which includes all of East Jerusalem.

Abbas is pursuing this strategy despite opposition from the United States and Israel, who are both exercising considerable pressure on him to not go down this road. They are offering him negotiations, without preconditions, but Abbas and his circle feel that negotiations have failed and that talks brokered by the USA will continue to go nowhere. In this they are probably correct. The Israeli government likes negotiations because it can spin them out indefinitely, grabbing ever more Palestinian land in the meantime. And the USA, far from being some kind of honest broker, has used negotiations in the past to try and cajole the Palestinians into some kind of grossly inequitable settlement. Abbas hopes that by taking the Palestinian case to the UN he can internationalise the conflict and change the dynamic. In advance of formally applying for UN membership, Abbas' government has tried to build up its administration of the West Bank areas it runs so that it looks like a credible government in waiting.

Not all Palestinians and friends of Palestinians are in favour of the bid for UN membership. For some, the Abbas government has so little credibility left that any initiative it undertakes is intrinsically suspect. Many Palestinians suspect that the bid, successful or not, will make no difference to their lives. And many think that attempting to create a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank risks abandoning the interests of Palestinians elsewhere – those in exile across the world and those living as second class citizens within pre-1967 Israel.

Still, Israel's vehement hostility to the bid has somewhat rallied pro-Palestinian support behind it. The Israeli state has a number of reasons for opposing the bid. One of these is that the status quo suits it very well, as the Israeli state and its settlers can continue gobbling up Palestinian land. There is also some fear that recognition of a Palestinian state would make it easier for Israeli army officers and politicians to be referred to the International Criminal Court. And a further fear is that if the UN recognises a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and the West Bank, it will not be possible to bully the Palestinian leadership into accepting the far more runty faux state that the Israeli government have in mind for them.

The Israelis have put considerable diplomatic efforts into trying to block Palestinian membership at the UN, but they know that there is overwhelming support in the chancelleries of the world for the proposal. The only way the Palestinian bid can realistically be blocked is by a Security Council veto by the USA. This of course puts the USA in an awkward position. The USA always blocks Security Council motions that are unacceptable to Israel, but in this case there is such overwhelming support for the motion that it will look completely out of step with world opinion if it backs its little friend. Worse, a US veto will destroy any latent credibility the superpower has in the now democratising Arab world. Barack Obama spoke earlier this year of his wish to see a Palestinian state emerging in Gaza and the West Bank – he would look like a complete flubblehead if the USA were to veto a proposal to create just such a state.

The USA is therefore very keen not to have to use its veto, and has been pressurising the Palestinians to not go ahead with their UN membership bid. But Abbas seems to be determined to go ahead, as the Americans are not offering him anything credible. The likelihood is then that the USA will veto Palestinian membership of the UN in the Security Council, taking the ghastly negative consequences that this would involve.

The expectation is that the Palestinians will then take their case to the General Assembly. The General Assembly cannot vote to allow a country to join the United Nations, but it can give enhanced observer status to the Palestinians. This is what is expected to happen. The Palestinians will then be able to engage more fully with UN agencies and may achieve easier access to the International Criminal Court that so worries Israeli war criminals.

After that, anything could happen. US parliamentarians have threatened to cut funds to the Palestinian Authority if the bid goes ahead. There is the strong possibility that the Israelis (who collect tax revenues for the PA, as a result of a bizarre feature of the Oslo Accords that set up the Authority) will also withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians could therefore find themselves with a degree of diplomatic recognition but with a civil administration that is collapsing through lack of funds.


Curb Your Enthusiasm: Israel and Palestine after the UN (International Crisis Group report on the Palestinian bid for UN membership; they wish people would just get along)

Ireland's call to support UN membership for Palestine [PDF] (an advertisement in today's Irish Times supporting the bid from Sadaka - the Ireland Palestine Alliance)

IPSC statement on the Palestinian “UN statehood initiative (a more ambivalent position adopted by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

15 September, 2011

Bahrain's Throne of Blood

When the wind of change started blowing through the Arab world earlier this year, Bahrain was one of the countries affected by unrest. In some ways this was not too surprising – like the other countries of the region, it languished under authoritarian rule, this time of a monarchical stripe. But the unrest was unusual in that it was occurring in an oil producing country, as conventional thinking on the Arab world describes countries like Bahrain – oil producers with a relatively small population – as rentier states. The government earns its money from oil production, so it does not have to tax its people and concede the political participation they might look for in return. Furthermore, oil revenue gives regimes the monies to buy off potential opposition.

But Bahrain still saw considerable unrest. This might be because of its own unique features – it is a Shia Muslim majority country with a Sunni Muslim monarch who has been careful to exclude Shia Muslims from positions of power. This blatant unfairness cannot but have triggered resentment that then erupted when the Arab masses were vitalised by the emerging Arab Spring. Yet the unrest in Bahrain does not seem to have had a particularly sectarian quality*, with both Sunni and Shia Muslims all taking to the streets and looking for freedom.

Sadly, the king of Bahrain has been able to crush the rebellion of his people, at least for now. Several factors allowed him to succeed where Mubarak, Ben Ali, and now Qaddafi failed. One of these was the oil wealth that came the king's way, which had allowed him to build up a mercenary army of thugs from around the Arab world. These people could be relied on to fire on Bahraini protesters because they would not be worrying that the people they were killing could be their friends and relations. The king also had the support of Saudi Arabia, which sent in its own army to help crush the protests; the Saudi rulers were obviously keen to prevent Bahraini protesters succeeding and encouraging their people to follow their example. And the king benefited from the tacit support of the USA and its allies. A US fleet is based in Bahrain, and any democratic transition there might have sent it packing. The Americans also feared that a democratic Bahrain might move into the orbit of Iran.

Since the democracy movement was crushed, Bahrain has been enduring a reign of terror, with protesters and activists rounded up and subjected to torture before receiving long prison sentences in kangaroo courts. This has all happened largely away from the attention of the world, as dramatic and more photogenic events in other countries have taken over the news cycles. That the unrest was crushed relatively quickly has probably also played to the advantage of the king, saving him from the kind of ongoing travails that the Syrian regime is continuing to endure.

In my own country, the involvement of a prestigious medical school here in the education of Bahraini doctors has somewhat kept the Bahraini crisis in the public eye. Although the medical school has largely washed its hands of the crisis, some doctors in Ireland have campaigned to publicise the fate of doctors in Bahrain who have found themselves facing the wrong end of the regime after they took part in protests or simply gave medical treatment to people the regime's thugs had injured. The Front Line Defenders organisation has also tried to keep Bahrain in the spotlight, placing enormous posters in central Dublin concerning the arrest, torture, and detention of human rights defenders in Bahrain like Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.

It's hard to know what will happen in Bahrain. At the moment, the Arab Spring looks like it has to some extent run out of steam across the region generally. However, this may be a false impression – away from Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia the dictators and kings may think they have things there way, but they could soon be facing another wave of freedom. Hopefully this will see the region's brutal rulers, including Bahrain's tyrant king, swept away to the dustbin of history.

*I am open to correction on this point.
Free Abdhulhadi al-Khawaja

03 July, 2011

Ed Milliband Is A Robot

Ed Milliband is leader of the Labour Party leader in Britain and a man who aspires to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Click here to watch an embarrassing interview in which he delivers the same answer to every question he is asked: "These Strikes Are Wrong..."

26 May, 2011

There Is Power In A Union

I am loth to post anything about the legal difficulties in which former IMF chief and former French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn finds himself. I am conscious that pretty much everything we know about this case is being leaked or made available to influence the public and potential jurors by the police, public prosecutors, or sources close to Mr Strauss-Kahn himself. I was, however, struck by a piece in the Guardian by Dean Baker: Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the union maid. Mr Baker makes an interesting point – that Strauss-Kahn's accuser is a union member, and it is thanks to her membership of a union that she is able to make complaints against a powerful guest without having to fear arbitrary persecution by her employer.

Trade Unions are currently subject to considerable political and rhetorical attacks across a range of countries. This case reminds us of why workers continue to need the protection that trade union membership provides.

Note – the title of Dean Bakers' article references a Woody Guthrie song. The title of this short post references one by Billy Bragg.

From Hunting Monsters

19 April, 2011

Syria part 3 – Bashir al-Assad

Part 1
Part 2

Syria's long-serving President Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000. The constitution was then amended by the country's mickey-mouse parliament to allow the late president's son Bashir become president (he was below the minimum age then in force). Bashir al-Assad's presidency was endorsed in a Soviet-style election in which he was the only candidate, apparently winning 97.2% of the popular vote.

Naïve hopes were high that Bashir would usher in liberalisation of the Syrian political scene. And indeed, the summer of 2000 saw a short-lived raising of the shutters in which there was a brief flowering of increasingly free political discussion. However, when this "Damascus Spring" became a potential threat to the regime, the shutters came back down again and a load of people who had gone too far were thrown in jail.

Some of the discussion on the Damascus Spring still talks about how Bashir wanted to introduce true democratic reform but was stymied by a sinister "Old Guard" of regime figures eager to hold onto their power. This is basically nonsense, an example of commentators buying into a piece of good-cop bad-cop political sleight of hand, a modern version of the "evil advisors" myth that helped keep mediaeval kings in power. After 2000 Bashir al-Assad showed himself quite capable of marginalising the men who had served his father and promoting his own cronies in their place. Mysteriously, the demotion and removal of the "Old Guard" was not accompanied by any relaxation of Syria's rigid authoritarianism. I do not think there is any reason to believe that the crackdown on the Damascus Spring happened despite Bashir's wishes.

Bashir al-Assad was able to see off internal opposition, but externally things were a bit more problematic. With the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon in 2000, the Lebanese became increasingly resentful about the continued presence of a Syrian occupation force. Cack-handed Syrian diplomacy and the assassination of politicians hostile to Syrian interests further incensed Lebanese opinion, culminating in a mass protest movement dubbed the Cedar Revolution after the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. This forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, though it continues to exercise influence there through its arming and support of Hezbollah. Iran remained Syria's only real external ally, though there was an increasing rapprochement with Turkey and a willingness by Russia to sell Syria arms.

Domestically, Syria's Soviet-style economy remained sclerotic, underperforming and dysfunctional, for all that the government had introduced a tentative move towards market reforms. Politically, the system remained rigidly authoritarian, far more so than in the likes of Jordan or Egypt. The Muslim Brothers and anything even remotely suggestive of Islamism were completely suppressed, though the secular regime was not hostile to apolitical religiosity. No political grouping with the remotest possibility of gaining a serious following was allowed to organise. The only semi-tolerated opposition groups were a number of tiny leftist and Arab nationalist organisations that were basically relics of the past and unlikely to ever gain any kind of traction against the regime. Even these little parties could only go so far, and would see their activists thrown into jail if they troubled the country's security services.

When the current wave of unrest began to sweep through the Arab world, the Syrian regime hoped that it would be able to ride out the storm. One of the regime's two advantages were its hard-line repression, through which it hoped to prevent even the slightest chink of serious opposition activism from coming into being. The regime's other perceived advantage was its lack of a peace treaty with Israel and ongoing cold war with that country; this enabled the regime to paint domestic opposition as being something that would undermine its firm stand against the enemy that still occupied Syrian territory. Another advantage for the Syrian regime was the spectre of Iraq, where an authoritarian regime's overthrow led to an inter-communal bloodbath, something that would have to be feared in a country as socially plural as Syria.

The regime's other source of strength is that the major Western powers do not want it to fall. Although they have enjoyed often problematic relationships with the Assads, the USA, UK, France, et al know where they stand with them and fear the instability that any change in Syria could bring. After all, a new Syrian regime might be more pliable, but perhaps a political transition would see a resurrection of the Muslim Brothers, perhaps newly fanaticised and willing to throw in their lot with Hamas and Hezbollah to initiate Armageddon.

And that's that for now. If you have enjoyed reading these three posts about Syria, why not compare them to a shorter piece I wrote about that fascinating country a few years ago: I Know All About Syria

From Hunting Monsters

03 April, 2011

Syria part 2 – The Hafez al-Assad years

Hafez al-Assad became Syria's president in 1970, after a "corrective movement" ousted his Ba'ath party rivals. It might initially have seemed that he would prove to be just another here-today-gone-tomorrow leader of Syria. However, he successfully managed to crush his rivals within the Ba'ath and co-opt or eliminate any threats outside it. Assad allied Syria with the Soviet Union and organised the domestic political scene on Soviet principles, with the Ba'ath as the leading party. The country's economy came increasingly under state control, much to the chagrin of the country's traditionally entrepreneurial business elite.

Externally, Syria joined Egypt in attacking Israel in 1973. Although this war saw Syria suffering another defeat, with the enemy ending up occupying more territory than when the war started, the relatively credible performance of the Syrian armed forces went some way to restoring national morale. By focussing on the early, successful stages of the conflict, Assad was even able to present the 1973 war as a kind of victory.

At home, Assad faced a violent challenge to his rule from the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers. They had social and religious axes to grind with him. The Syrian Muslim Brothers drew their support from the country's petit bourgeoisie, people who were being squeezed by the increasingly statist economic policies of the regime. On the religious side, they were angered by the secular orientation of the Ba'athists and by Assad's own religious affiliation. Assad was a member of the minority Alawite faith, seen as not truly Muslim by many members of more mainstream Muslim sects. That Assad's regime was seen to be favouring Alawites over the majority Sunni Muslims must have been particularly galling.

The Muslim Brothers waged a violent campaign of assassinations and bombings against Assad's regime, and he repaid them in kind. Violence escalated through the 1970s and 1980s, climaxing in 1982 when the Muslim Brothers staging an uprising in the city of Hama (which they hoped would trigger a mass revolt across the country). Assad crushed the Hama uprising in a bloodbath that saw more than 10,000 people killed. In so doing he permanently ended the Muslim Brotherhood's insurgency and deterred serious opposition for decades by showing how far he would go to retain power.

In retrospect, the Muslim Brothers were probably doomed to fail. Their Hama uprising failed to ignite a wider revolt, and the reasons for this are not difficult to discern. Their narrow social and religious vision meant that they alienated completely the large number of Syrians who are not Sunni Muslim Arabs. Even with the Sunni, they had little to say to people outside the petit bourgeoisie. So that was the end of them. They continue to maintain a ghostly presence as a party in exile (where they belatedly accept that their violent campaign was a mistake), but are believed to have next to no organised presence within Syria.

While all the excitement with the Muslim Brothers was going on, Assad was also beginning a Syrian involvement in neighbouring Lebanon that would go on for decades. Lebanon erupted into civil war in the 1970s. Syria initially intervened in a vaguely peace-keeping role to assist a Maronite Christian militia who looked like they were about to be defeated. Over time, however, Syria aligned with and against every possible Lebanese faction.

Now, why did Syria intervene in Lebanon? I think there were two factors at play. First of all, Assad was probably using the civil war as a pretext for projecting power in a country that he, like many his compatriots, saw as a natural sphere of Syrian influence. Secondly, he wanted to dampen down the Lebanese situation so that its instability did not provoke Israel into intervening there.

In the first of his goals, Assad was to prove remarkably successful, making Lebanese politicians dance to the Syrian tune whether they liked it or not. However, he failed in his second – Israel launched a mini-invasion of Lebanon in 1978 and then invaded for real in 1982. This saw more military defeats for Syria, but Israel was unable to turn military power into political success. Syria retained its hegemonic role in Lebanon and used its Hezbollah allies to harass and ultimately humiliate the Israeli occupiers.

Syria's alliance with the Hezbollah, the radical Islamist party of Lebanon's Shia community, flowed from Assad's alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Secular Syria and Islamist Iran made for odd bedfellows, but it made a good marriage of convenience between two countries otherwise without many friends in the region. The alliance with Iran became especially important to Syria after the disappearance of its other external patron, the USSR.

The fall of the USSR led some to think that the Assad regime would follow it into oblivion. This proved not to be the case. The loss of Soviet support meant that Syria had to abandon the pipe-dream of one day achieving military parity with Israel, but Assad was able to maintain himself in power and continue projecting Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon.

From Hunting Monsters

Part 3 coming soon.

02 April, 2011

Syria part 1 – Before the Assads

The wave of unrest spreading across the Arab World has now arrived in Syria. This is interesting, as Syria is a bit of an outlier in the region and some commentators had assumed that its unusual features would lead it to escape an emergence of people demanding political rights. What are those unusual features? Well, for one, Syria is rigidly authoritarian, with almost no space for political activity not sanctioned by the state. The country has also declined to sign a peace treaty with Israel, with Damascus hosting the exiled leadership of several of the more radical Palestinian groups. The Syrian regime is also a bit of a historical relic, flying the flag for a kind of vaguely leftist, secular, pan-Arab nationalism that largely died out elsewhere with the end of the 1960s. How did Syria get to where it is today? Read on.

Until the First World War, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, existing as a geographic concept running from what is now Turkey to the borders of Egypt and what is now Saudi Arabia (and so including all of Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel). After the First World War, this region was divided up and modern Syria came into being under French rule. Some people there continued (and continue) to hanker after a restored Greater Syria, with many Syrians in particular finding it hard to think of Lebanon as a truly independent country.

Syria became independent after the Second World War, initially with a parliamentary regime on the French model. The new Syrian state was remarkably plural in its ethnic and religious make-up. Sunni Muslim Arabs made up about 60% of the population, with the rest being Arabs of all kinds of religious persuasion (Shia, Druze, Alawite, varieties of Christian) and there are also ethnic minorities (Kurds and Armenians, notably).

Once independent, Syria fell into a long period of instability in which military coups followed each other every couple of years, with politics in the country being characterised by conspiracy and intrigue. The country even merged with Egypt for a time in the 1960s, to create a United Arab Republic, but the union proved short-lived and was dissolved acrimoniously.

One ongoing feature of Syrian political life in the 1950s and 1960s was the rise of the Ba'ath Party. The Ba'ath (which literally translates as "Awakening") was a party advocating a secular, socialist pan-Arab nationalism. Yet for all its pan-Arabism, the Ba'ath never really amounted to much outside Syria (apart from in Iraq, where the local Ba'athists soon became the bitter enemies of their Syrian comrades) and it never attracted a mass following in Syria itself. It was however influential in the military, the state administration and intellectual circles. However, the Ba'ath was also highly factionalised and much of Syria's period of instability saw different groups of Ba'athists feuding with each other and struggling to suppress their rivals.

In 1967 Syria joined in the Six Day War against Israel and received a sound thrashing in return. After destroying the Syrian air force, Israeli forces overran the Golan Heights. This triggered more instability within Syria, culminating in a 1970 coup led by the Defence Minister, Hafez al-Assad. Assad's new government wished to conduct a more pragmatic foreign policy, avoiding the radical adventurism that had led to the 1967 disaster.

From Hunting Monsters

12 March, 2011

Libya's Tantalising Archives

When the unrest gripping the Arab world spread to Libya and the regime there started looking shaky I must admit to having experienced a certain excitement. It is always great to see a brutal dictator like Colonel Gaddafi being overthrown by his people, even if he is a rather colourful character who brings a certain excitement to the normally bland world of international relations. More than that, though, were the treats that could become available to researchers if the regime fell and its archives became accessible. Some quantification of the level of support given by Gaddafi to the IRA in the 1980s would be fascinating. Particularly interesting would be the possibility of getting some answers to some questions that have divided opinion for the last number of years.

Older readers will recall how in 1986 the Americans bombed Libya, killing one of Gaddafi's adopted children in a botched attempt to decapitate his regime by taking him out*. This was ostensibly a response to the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin frequented by US servicemen. Now, at the time there was some discussion over whether Libya really had any hand or part in the Berlin bombing, with some suggestion that it had been perpetrated by figures linked to other unsavoury Middle Eastern regimes but seized on by the USA as a handy stick with which to beat the then-troublesome Gaddafi. It would be interesting to see what Libyan archives had to say about the Berlin bombing.

A controversy of more recent vintage is the dispute over the release from prison in Scotland of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan man convicted for planting the bomb that brought down an American airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Doubts had been raised as to the safety of al-Megrahi's conviction and he had been appealing against the original verdict before he was released (his dropping of that appeal was a condition of his release, which meant conveniently that the arguments against his original conviction were never stated in open court). Libyan secret service archives might shed some light on the Lockerbie bombing, perhaps revealing whether he had been involved in the bomb plot, whether he had not but other Libyans had, or whether Libya had nothing whatsoever to do with the Lockerbie bombing (as has been suggested by some writers, who point the figure at certain other shady regimes).

Now, it might be naïve to expect Libyan archives to shed light on these fascinating questions. In the event of regime collapse, incriminating documents might well end up being destroyed before they can be accessed, or any newly emergent Libyan regime might itself be loth to let random academics and researchers trawl around in what would still be very sensitive files. And the people who may have been involved in organising shady events may well have taken care to keep their efforts out of potentially troublesome files. In any case, after initial successes, it does rather look like the Libyan rebels have rather run out of steam. Gaddafi looks like his thuggish rule will be continuing for some time, at least in part of Libya, so the opening up of the country's archives will probably not be happening any time soon.

EDIT: I forgot to mention the curious case of Musa Sadr. Sadr is not exactly a household name in Ireland, but in Lebanon you will still see posters of this Shia Muslim cleric in parts of the country where his co-religionists live. Musa Sadr founded the political movement that subsequently acquired the name Amal as a secular political movement for the then impoverished Shia Muslims of Lebanon. In 1978 he disappeared while visiting Libya, widely believed to have been murdered by Gaddafi's secret service. Again, Libya's archives have the potential to confirm Musa Sadr's fate, and to cast light on the reasons for his murder.

From Hunting Monsters

*though I see on Wikipedia that it has been argued that this adopted daughter of Gaddafi was essentially made up for propaganda purposes, not that anyone is denying that actual Libyan people were killed in the bombing raid.

Modelling Language Survival

Some physicists in Spain, led by Jorge Mira Pérez, have produced an interesting mathematical model for how languages succeed and fail (see here). Their particular interest in this case is in what happens to languages where two coexist in the one location. This question is one with more than academic interest in Spain, a country where the central language, Spanish (or Castilian), has to deal with a host of other languages spoken by people in regions. In these regions, the local languages (not limited to Basque, Catalan, and Galician) coexist with Spanish. As languages are often bound up with questions of ethnic and national identity, the projected likelihood of any particular Spanish language surviving can have significant long-term political ramifications.

Now, of course, the fellows producing this model are physicists and they are not directly familiar with the socio-political factors that can strengthen or weaken a language, though they did attempt to factor some of these into their results. Their model nevertheless produced some interesting findings. They reckoned that there are three factors that allow two languages to coexist indefinitely in an area. Firstly, there needs to be a significant number of speakers of each language there. Secondly, the languages need to be somewhat similar. And thirdly, there needs to be a large bloc of people who can speak both languages. Their model is apparently fairly good at retrospectively predicting the historical data on the relative strength of Spanish and Galician in northwest Spain.

The last requirement is being presented as the most surprising one, but I was struck by their model's suggestion that the two co-existing languages need to be somewhat similar. I think maybe this might be resulting from the model being over-based on the situation in Galicia, where the researchers are based. I find it difficult to see how the coexistence of two similar languages in an area can be stable into the long term. My expectation would be that the languages would merge (or that one would absorb the other) if they were that similar, or else that over time the differences in the languages would be accentuated and they would diverge into more straightforwardly dissimilar tongues. Particularly with similar languages sharing a space, one has to ask the question what are the two languages for? If the language is basically a form of communication then why two similar ones when one language will do. If languages instead serve at least partly as badges of group identity then wildly different languages do the job far better.

Still, for all that the model can be criticised, any attempt to abstract the question of what makes languages survive and fail is to be welcomed, as it takes the debate away from the more emotive and political question of whether languages should be assisted or left to fend for themselves. At this stage, though, the model is clearly too weak to even think of making any kind of policy-prescriptions based on it. As this is an area I am not particularly familiar with, I am curious as to whether there are other people working in this area and producing more robust models.

From Hunting Monsters

19 February, 2011

Irish Election Posters

The Bank's
There is a general election campaign taking place in Ireland at the moment, with the country due to vote on Friday the 25th of February. For no obvious reason I have taken to photographing election posters and created Flickr and Facebook albums of them. I have been rather surprised by reactions to them, with people from outside Ireland saying that they do not really have anything equivalent for elections in their country. Now, some places do not have election posters stuck up on lamp posts and telegraph poles, but it is the highly personalised nature of Irish election posters that most strikes others as unusual – apparently you do not normally get photographs of election candidates on posters in other countries.

Darth Vader
I was surprised by this. Ireland is not the only country in the world with constituency based elections where people vote for individual candidates, so I would have expected that elections elsewhere would at least partly be run on the basis of local candidates trying to attract a purely personal vote. This does not seem to be the case. That leaves me wondering what is different about Ireland that makes election campaigning work this way.

One thing here is political culture. Irish people seem to want something of a personal relationship with their political representatives, so it is unsurprising that we get posters with the candidate’s grinning face.

Another factor often mentioned is Ireland’s electoral system – the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. In this unusual system, people give a first preference to their favourite candidate, a second preference to the next, and so on. Candidates who receive more votes than they need to be elected have some of them transferred to other candidates, while people who have received too few to be elected are eliminated and their votes also redistributed. To get elected it is often necessary for a candidate to attract lower preferences from people voting for other candidates, including from candidate from other parties. This makes it worth their while trying to establish name recognition for themselves. It is also useful for a candidate to cultivate a sense of their own political nice-ness, so that they stand a chance of attracting transfers.

I am a bit sceptical of the idea that Ireland’s electoral system rigidly determines how politics works here, so my feeling is that the political culture argument is more important as a factor in driving our highly personalised election campaigning. I reckon that even if we had plurality voting (as seen in Britain, Canada, and the USA, among others) we would still be looking at the cheery faces of candidates from our lamp-posts. But there is no real way of telling. In any case, explaining things by reference to political culture is problematic, as you then have to start wondering what causes political culture to take the form it does.

Blue Shirts

14 February, 2011

After Mubarak: Part 3 - International Effects of the Fall of Mubarak

Final Episode

In the short term, the successful ouster of Mubarak is likely to lead to more protests in other Arab countries. There has already been unrest in Yemen and Libya, two countries with long-serving leaders who have, like Mubarak, considerably outstayed their welcome; it will be interesting to see whether this intensifies. There are also reports of emerging unrest in Algeria, where a thuggish military clique has been in power since not long after independence, and also in Sudan.

Whether the reformist wave spreads to the monarchies will be interesting. I suspect that the Gulf oil plutocracies may well prove immune to serious pressures for democratisation, but the likes of Jordan and Morocco may find their regimes under serious threat if a wind of change blows through the rest of the Arab world. Whether unrest spreads to Syria will also be interesting to see. Syria has been ruled by the same family since the early 1970s and has the usual underperforming economy of Arab countries, but it is a bit of an outlier in other respects, being perhaps the most rigidly authoritarian country in the region but also the one Arab country that is still an enemy of the West* and Israel. The latter maybe gives the Syrian regime a credibility that the various US-backed kings and dictators elsewhere lack.

The really interesting possible contagion effect of the Egyptian protests could be in Iran. The Iranian regime announced a while ago that it supported the Egyptian protests because they were akin to the 1978-1979 protests that brought down the Shah and brought the Islamic Republic into being. However, opposition figures in Iran have drawn similarities between the Egyptian protests and Iran's own protests against last year's rigged presidential election. There is talk of Iranians taking to the streets to support Egypt's revolution and then implicitly or explicitly demand democratic change at home, something the country's power elite do not want to happen.

In the longer term, the country with most to lose from the transition in Egypt is Israel. Even if a new government in Egypt does not go to war with Israel or start arming Palestinian militants, any government in a more democratic Egypt is going to be less accommodating of Israeli interests than Mubarak was. Israeli leaders will therefore be watching developments in Egypt with some nervousness. In particular, it will be interesting to see whether Egypt continues to assist Egypt in maintaining the siege of Gaza (up to now Mubarak had been keeping the Gazan-Egyptian frontier largely closed). I find it hard to see how any democratically based Egyptian government can continue doing Israel's work for it, so some opening of Gaza's southern border is to be expected. I am not sure what the Israeli government would do in response, though I note their tendency to respond with extreme violence whenever a problem presents itself.

At the moment, Egypt receives an enormous amount of aid from the United States of America. If Egypt moves to a more confrontational relationship with Israel then this aid is likely to dry up. I am not sure how much of a loss this would actually be to Egypt, as much of it comes in the form of tanks, airplanes, and other toys for the Egyptian armed forces – does anyone know if a significant proportion of it comes in more socially useful forms? Either way the loss of this aid would hurt Egypt, so a less confrontational line towards Israel may be pursued in the hope of hanging onto at least some of it.

*The extent to which Syria is actually an enemy of the West is a bit arguable; it is more that successive American regimes are hostile to it, for all that they are happy to subcontract torture and intelligence gathering to the Syrian security services. American hostility stems from Syria's support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its reluctance to accept a one-sided peace deal with Israel. Syria's attempts to run Lebanon as a client state, meanwhile, cause problems in its relations with other western countries, notably France.

From Hunting Monsters

13 February, 2011

After Mubarak: Part 2 - The Spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood

One fear consistently expressed about a transition in Egypt is that it would lead to a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood and the institution of an Iranian-style Islamic Republic. This apocalyptic scenario was implicitly or explicitly evoked by Mubarak and his defenders, with the old man painted as the only thing stopping the mad mullahs from going on a maniacal rampage. A takeover by the Muslim Brothers and an Islamic Republic is not particularly likely in Egypt, however. One thing seen elsewhere is that while Islamist parties have considerable appeal in Muslim and Arab countries, they never seem to really command majority support from voters. So long as Egypt adopts some kind of electoral system with a significant measure of proportional representation then a parliamentary majority for the Muslim Brothers is unlikely. Of course, if Egypt ends up with a non-proportional electoral system, particularly one that gives significant rewards to the largest party, then the country could find itself with an accidental parliamentary majority of the Muslim Brothers.

However, it seems that the Brotherhood is already taking steps to ensure that it does not end up having to rule Egypt. Its leaders have said that they will not be fielding a candidate in presidential elections, an indication that they seem happy enough to remain in opposition. In parliamentary elections they may well follow the example of their fellow in Jordan, where the Islamists fielded sufficiently few candidates that it would have been impossible for them to win a majority. It seems, oddly, that Islamists like being in opposition. This may be because they have spent so long there that they do not have any kind of realistic government programme (the Muslim Brothers in Egypt have a tendency to say "Islam is the answer" when asked any awkward question).

The other reason why the Muslim Brotherhood may choose to lose is the example of what happened elsewhere when Arab Islamists won elections. In 1992 in Algeria an Islamist party looked like winning that country's first ever free elections. The military responded with a coup that plunged the country into a horrific civil war, receiving the full backing of western powers in this attack on democracy. In 2006, when Islamists unexpectedly won elections to the parliament of the Palestinian Authority and formed a government there, the international community responded by cutting off its financial support of the PA and, in the USA's case, attempting to subvert it. It is easy for Islamist parties to conclude, therefore, that political power is a prize that internal and external actors will prevent them from exercising, so it is better just to be a big opposition party rather than the party of government.

One other factor making an Islamic Republic on the Iranian model unlikely is the differing nature of Islam in Egypt and Iran. Iranian Muslims are mostly Shia, while in Egypt Sunnis predominate. Sunni Islam does not feature the kind of hierarchical clergy found in Shia Iran, so there is no monolithic clerical caste to assume the kind of leadership role the ayatollahs in Iran did. It is also noticeable that the Muslim Brotherhood is a mostly lay organisation, with relatively little involvement by Muslim clergy. That is not to say that it could not theoretically impose its vision on society, but it would not be putting Iranian-style Ayatollahs in the driving seat.

In any case, it seems like the Muslim Brothers look more to Turkey, hoping to be like that country's government of friendly Islamists who are no more threatening than European Christian Democrats or the various God Botherers who infest American politics. You may not like these people, but your not liking them does not make their participation in politics illegitimate.

From Hunting Monsters

12 February, 2011

After Mubarak: Part 1

I am writing on the day after Egypt's vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned and handed power to what is basically a military junta. The situation in the country remains fluid, but I will nevertheless now attempt to sketch some likely future developments.

Mubarak's resignation does not represent a full democratic transition. The regime he headed basically remains in place. His former colleagues may be hoping that in throwing him to the wolves they can preserve their own positions of power. My feeling, however, is that they will not be able to succeed in this endeavour. If it becomes too obvious that they are just attempting to perpetuate themselves in power then the pressure for change will rise again. I see things in Egypt as developing a bit like they have been going in Tunisia, with initially mild reforms being followed by more far-reaching changes to the political system. My prediction is that Egypt will move inexorably towards fully competitive elections.

One thing I hope to see in Egypt is the dismantling of the Mukhabarat and thuggish security apparatus that was so in evidence during the period of protests. If the establishment faction remain able to haul in and torture opponents or send in street thugs against their political opponents then a full transition will not take place. It looks to me that the freedom protesters have grasped this point too, with their demands for an end to Egypt's interminable state of emergency marking a desire for a normal kind of politics where the secret police torturer has no place. Again, my feeling is that with the regime in retreat it will have to bow to the popular will in this area.

So, what will a democratic Egypt look like? One thing that will be interesting to see is whether the reform process just adds competitive elections into the existing constitutional setup, or if there is some attempt to sit back and think about what kind of political setup would best suit the country. I reckon the former is more likely, so Egypt will find itself with a directly elected and powerful president, and a prime minister responsible to an elected parliament – a new member of the family of semi-presidential nations. This is probably unfortunate – a purely parliamentary system of government might be more conducive to managing the democratic transition, as it avoids the concentration of power you get with executive presidents and the tiresome turf wars that can erupt between presidents and prime ministers; a parliamentary system would also require a more broadly based coalition government. However, the experience of transitions elsewhere is that people tend not to really think that much about institutional issues until well after a system has embedded itself, so I do not expect a purely parliamentary system to emerge.

Aside from institutional issues, there is the question of what political groupings will be influential in a post-transition Egypt. At the moment, Egypt has two big parties (the ruling National Democratic Party and Muslim Brotherhood) and a load of small parties. I suspect that unless it is forcibly dissolved, the NDP will remain a player in Egyptian politics, largely due to institutional inertia (I am partly basing this prediction on the continued existence of former communist parties in Eastern Europe after the transition there). However, neither the NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood is that well-placed to really dominate politics. The NDP is the old regime institutionalised, so it is hardly going to pick up mass support from a public eager for change. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, is by its very nature not really in a position to pick up support from outside its core constituency. It also has an odd self-defeating streak that I will return to later. That seems to mean that the general reformist tendency that brought people out onto the streets is up for grabs. In the period before elections take place I expect to see parties and politicians emerging and scrambling to try and capture this elusive constituency.

From Hunting Monsters

07 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 4 – Mubarak

Conluding my brief series introducing the history of modern Egypt

Sadat was succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak. He has been in power ever since. He largely continued Sadat's policies – maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, the economic liberalisation, and the pro-US orientation of Egyptian foreign policy. More recently, Egypt has been assisting Israel in maintaining the siege of Gaza, merely the latest manifestation of Mubarak's traditional foreign policy.

Mubarak's economic policies (largely continued from the Sadat era) continued to show no obvious benefit to the Egyptian masses. Instead a shifty business elite, often comprising people with close links to Mubarak and his political cronies, seemed to become ever richer.

Politics remained essentially authoritarian, based around Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, with only the merest democratic trimmings around the edges. The Muslim Brotherhood (still technically illegal, but semi-tolerated) continued to be the most prominent opposition grouping. By this stage this group had largely embraced the political process over violence. The regime was too entrenched for it to directly challenge, so the Brothers concentrated on setting up charitable foundations and creating a parallel network to Mubarak's state.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood was not the only Islamist game in town. Seeing the Brotherhood as having gone soft, some were attracted to more hard core groups who carried out a series of unpleasant terrorist attacks on tourists (e.g. the Luxor massacre), regime figures, and Egypt's indigenous Christian community.

On the eve of the current round of protests, the elderly and not particularly healthy Mubarak seemed nevertheless to be secure in power. Few people liked him very much, but he seemed to have ridden out any challenges to his regime and was grooming his idiot son Gamal to succeed him. The Muslim Brotherhood appeared like a spent force, having failed to bring an end to Mubarak and suffering increased state harassment of their charitable and political activities. The headbanger Islamists had largely been crushed or had drifted off to fight the Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan. The secular opposition to Mubarak, while substantial in numbers, was leaderless, disorganised, and ineffective. The Grim Reaper looked like the only serious threat to Mubarak's continued rule.

06 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 3 – Sadat

Continuing my exciting series on the History of Egypt

When Nasser died, he was succeeded by his vice president, Anwar Sadat. In 1973, Sadat joined with the Syrians in launching a surprise attack on the Israelis. Although the Israelis ultimately prevailed, Egyptian national pride was restored by their army's creditable performance. Sadat launched a diplomatic offensive that led to a peace treaty with Israel and their withdrawal from the Sinai. This led to a period of Arab World isolation for Egypt.

Sadat also reversed Nasser's orientation towards the Soviet Union, seeking out a new alliance with the United States of America. Nasser's socialist experiments domestically were replaced by a new policy of Infitah (opening), whereby the Egyptian economy was liberalised and foreign investment welcomed. This created an Egyptian business elite without obviously benefiting the country's masses, but they may well have been even worse off if Nasserite socialism had continued.

In 1981 Sadat suffered the unfortunate fate of being murdered by disgruntled army officers at a parade commemorating the 1973 crossing of the Canal by Egyptian forces. His killers were Islamists angered by the peace treaty with Israel. There was a certain irony to Sadat's fate – he had previously encouraged Egyptian Islamists to counter leftist opposition to his Infitah policies.

05 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 2 – Nasser

Continuing my exciting series on the History of Egypt

In 1948, Egypt joined other Arab states in sending its armed forces to assist the Palestinians in their struggle against the emerging Israeli state. Egyptian forces performed rather badly in this conflict, undermining support for the monarchy. In 1952, a military coup overthrew the monarchy. After a power struggle, Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser became Egypt's president. He was the first ethnic Egyptian leader of his country since the pharaohs*.

Nasser negotiated a British withdrawal form the Canal Zone and then embarked on a radical series of reforms. He also shut down the parliamentary system that had existed under the monarchy, setting up a purely authoritarian system of government based on himself. And he began to orient the country towards the Soviet Union. Nasser cut a charismatic dash and became something of a hero across the Arab world. He even achieved a short-lived union of Egypt and Syria, seen as a possible harbinger of a future united Arab state.

When the secular nationalist character of Nasser's programme became clear, he earned himself the enmity of the Muslim Brotherhood. He suppressed their conspiracies against him and executed their chief ideologue, Sayyid Qutb.

When Nasser went and nationalised the Suez Canal, he earned the pathological hostility of the British government. They joined with Israel and France in attacking Egypt, reoccupying part of the Canal Zone. However, the invasion failed when the USA refused to support it. The three invaders withdrew and Nasser's stock soared.

From there, however, it was downhill for him. His economic reforms ran out of steam. In 1967, Egypt found itself at war with Israel again. This time the Israelis destroyed the Egyptian armed forces in an embarrassingly brief and one-sided campaign. The Israelis also occupied the Sinai Peninsula and the east bank of the Suez Canal, closing off this vital source of foreign exchange. Nasser was humiliated, and died a broken man in 1970.

*I have to qualify this statement. The Kings of Egypt had been of Albanian extraction, but by the time of the monarchy's overthrow they had lived in Egypt for around a hundred years, and could arguably be taken to have become naturalised. Nasser was also preceded as Egypt's president by General Muhammed Naguib, an ethnic Egyptian, but during this brief period real power lay with Nasser.

04 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 1 – the British Protectorate

The current pro-democracy protests in Egypt have put the country at the top of world news reports. For the benefit of readers who know next to nothing about this populous country, I present this brief history.

British commercial penetration of Egypt was followed by British political dominance and military occupation in the late 19th century. Egypt was never formally incorporated into the British Empire, retaining its own hereditary ruler (a Khedive, later a King) and government, but ultimate power lay with the British High Commissioner. Britain's main interest in Egypt stemmed from a desire to protect the Suez Canal, a vital link to India.

British indirect rule situation persisted well into the 20th century, despite a rise in Egyptian nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, Britain withdrew its military forces from most of Egypt, remaining only in vicinity of the Canal. The assumption was that the country would remain a firm British ally.

The British period saw the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's longest lasting and most influential Islamist movement. The Muslim Brothers staged a sometimes violent campaign against the monarchy and the British occupation, both of which responded in kind.