The year’s legacies

It has become a media tradition around the New Year to look back at the highlights of the year – and, indeed, I have always done so here on Topical Creativity. This year, however, I am not giving you a blow-by-blow reminder of the past twelve months. Instead I present you with a list of events which have struck me as most important, the moments which, when we look back, will mark turning points and define 2013. And so, in no particular order, here goes:

  • The US government shut itself down.

This was a rather dramatic way for the Republicans and Democrats to prove that they hate each other, considering the uncertainty the move could have created on the financial markets and the hundreds of thousands of people they sent home from work. In the end, however, the Republicans saw their popularity ratings tumble so far that they were forced to compromise – something they hadn’t done for a while. Once the government was back up and running, Congress actually passed a budget for the first time since 2009. There is a feeling that maybe – just maybe – this heralds a new era in which the governing parties tone down partisanship and, you know, actually govern.

  • France intervened in Mali

The situation in Mali provided us with several lessons. Firstly, the French President may not actually be as wet as he appears (although with his approval ratings bobbing around the 20% mark, this doesn’t seem to have made him any more popular). Secondly, Western intervention can lead to good outcomes if it has a defined purpose and is planned thoroughly – news indeed to many. Although Mali remains unstable, the country’s Islamist rebels no longer threaten the vast majority of the population, especially as French forces still stand in their way. Lastly, we saw that a new wave of terrorism is emerging, this time not in the Middle East but in Africa, where groups take advantage of failed states and rampant poverty. This fact was highlighted by the later attacks on an oil plant in Nigeria and a shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The world is still waking up to this new development.

  • Syria’s President Assad got away with gassing his civilians to death

Despite France’s success in Mali, the West spectacularly failed to hold Assad to account for his use of chemical weapons. Chilling images of dead children could not overcome the political legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and although many, including Obama and Cameron, wanted to act, nothing was done. And with that, the West lost its credibility as the world’s protector. What this means for the perceived world order is yet to be seen.

The civil war is now close to entering its third year. Having already claimed over 125,000 Syrian lives, it is now threatening the peace in neighbouring Lebanon and across the region. And the protracted length of the war is causing the moderate opposition to lose ground while Islamists grow stronger as disaffection grows. An uncomfortable situation is now emerging in which no one particularly wants either side to win. This makes moving towards a peace deal increasingly complicated. Recently, talks have begun in Geneva, but with key players like Iran absent from the table, no one is holding their breath.

  • A deal was made with Iran over its nuclear programme

After years of stalemate, the ice between the US and Iraq has begun to thaw around the edges. Negotiations have finally yielded a deal. Although interim, the deal goes a fair way in limiting Iran’s ability to quickly manufacturing a bomb without anyone knowing. It provides a glimmer of hope for those arguing that the new President will really be a moderate and try to open up his country. It remains to be seen, however, if the Supreme Leader will let him do so. It is possible that the economic sanctions the rest of the world has imposed on Iran will force the Ayatollah to give ground in order to keep a lid on growing domestic resentment. On the other hand, the Ayatollah’s power is legitimised by a cultivated sense of an ideological battle between Iran and the ‘Evil Empire’ of the US. If the two countries enter a period of rapprochement, this legitimacy simply disappears, and so perhaps the economic sanctions pose less of a personal threat to the Ayatollah. Either way, change is coming to Iran and its place in the world.

  • Chaos came to Egypt again

The heady days of the Arab spring are a thing of the past. In early 2011 the world was fooled into thinking that people power and optimism could transform autocratic states into liberal democracies. Alas, the naysayers were right: it wasn’t to be. When massive protests erupted again in Egypt against the Islamist President this summer, in anger at his attempted power grab and undemocratic ways, there was a brief sense that Egypt new what it wanted and was going to get it. But then the army – the kingpin of the ancien regime – arrested the President and staged a coup. After a year’s interlude, the generals were back in power and promising new elections. But with the recent banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is unclear who anyone would vote for and, most importantly, if the army would honour the people’s decision should an election actually be held. As the rest of the Middle East has a habit of following where Egypt boldly goes, these questions will prove very important in 2014.

  • We lost a “giant of history”

Nelson Mandela died this year, at the age of 95. The rebel, freedom fighter, President of South Africa and world statesman will be missed dearly, but his iconic status lives on in his legacy. He taught the world many lessons: endurance, forgiveness, devotion to a cause. The question now is whether, with Madiba gone, his country and others can live up to his ideal of rainbow nations free from the scourge of racial oppression. Probably not, but his death has certainly highlighted the failure of South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, to help his people or, indeed, to act within the law. Such increased scrutiny suggests it may be a choppy year ahead for South Africa.

  • A new round of reforms began in China

This development garnered less media attention than my other highlights of 2013, but it may be one of the most significant. With China fast becoming a candidate to be a new superpower, how the vast country controls its internal affairs will, more and more, shape everyone else’s too. The latest gathering of the top echelons of the Communist Party, under it’s relatively new leader Xi Jinping, resulted in the announcement of a relaxation of the infamous one child policy and the extension of market based economics. China is not embarking on an unstoppable march towards liberalism, but it is showing that it will abandon ideological dogma if circumstances require it. This will have one of two opposing effects: make the new China easier to work with, or increasingly unpredictable.

The fear of uncertainty

Fear is as thick as tear gas in Cairo’s streets this week. Uncertainty is the only thing which everyone which everyone can agree on. Indeed, there is even debate about whether we have or haven’t witnessed a military coup.

Is a coup a coup when the citizenry support the military’s action? Of course it is; the only legitimate method of replacing one administration with another is a free and fair election. A military intervention is about as far from this as you could possibly get, although they are trying to soften the edges by installing the head of the constitutional court as ‘interim’ president. No one, including the army, seems to have any idea how long such an interim will last, or what will come afterwards. New elections have been hinted at, but it is hard to tell if they will ever happen – the last time Egypt’s army staged a coup it held on to power for twenty-six years. If elections did take place, what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood won, as is well within the realm of possibility given the huge demonstrations in favour of the deposed president? One doubts that a second Morsi would be allowed to take power, and that would cause further chaos. Speaking of Morsi, where is he and what does the army plan to do with him? There are many questions, and possible answers are not cheering. Belief in the army’s good intentions faded with the sound of bullets being used on protesters.

Like everything, this story is multifaceted. The coup-or-not-a-coup debate is founded on the fact that Morsi’s government was far from democratic. Being elected is not enough to bestow legitimacy on an administration, especially when the president interferes with judicial independence and steers the direction of the constituent assembly as it tries – and fails – to write a decent constitution. Hopefully, this process can be restarted and a new document written to replace the shambolic constitution ratified last year – although this is perhaps too optimistic. It seems, then, that in Egypt the choices offered to the people are equally ugly – rule by an autocratic-but-elected Islamist or by an illegitimate and brutal army. They will not be envied the decision.

Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Doubts on democracy

So the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi has beaten Ahmed Shafiq in Egypt’s Presidential elections. After decades of being forced underground during the years of the old regime, the Brothers have gained power in the first democratic elections in Egypt’s history. This is, obviously, a victory for freedom – the people gathered in Cairo’s now-infamous Tahrir Square clearly see it as such.

Elsewhere people will worry. The West will instinctively find it difficult to accept an Islamist government, even as it cheers the advent of democracy. But the West is irrelevant in this situation. The real worrying will be done by Egypt’s liberals, women and – particularly – its sizable Coptic Christian minority. The Brothers have promised to form a unity coalition with such liberals and has sworn to honour the rights of women and minorities – but, then again, they promised not to contest the election at all. Promises, it seems, can be broken.

What’s striking here is that many of those who are terrified of the Brothers had to vote for them. People were so mistrusting of Shafiq – the old regime’s last Prime Minister – that they ignored their fears and did the unthinkable. These are the people whose principles were so strong that they risked their lives last February to bring down President Mubarak, it is no wonder they refused to vote for his number two. They may hope, as I still do, that the burden of responsibility will force the Brothers to be more liberal than they were when an underground outfit.

The choice on offer – a Brother or an army man – is an indictment of the progress made since those jubilant days. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took over governance after Mr Mubarak’s fall has been extremely reluctant to return to its barracks after decades of controlling civilian life. It postponed the elections several times, and held back results with no explanation. In the build up to the announcement of Mr Morsi’s victory, the SCAF has issued decrees limiting the President’s powers and entrenching their own. This does not bode well – and it is still not certain that the ruling generals will retire peacefully. Somehow, I doubt they will. If this does indeed turn out to be the case, we may witness an ‘Arab spring 2.0’ – this time of a more bloody nature.

Even if the SCAF does bow out gracefully, Egypt is simply a mess. A constitution is yet to be written, while the Brotherhood-dominated constitunal assembly acts as a Parliament instead. No one knows what powers the new President will have, which is quite a big problem for the man himself. Democracy is a fragile thing – and, with all the uncertainties, it may be about to be dropped.

Here’s hoping everyone sticks to their promises.

2012 – another year of change?

Welcome to my 2012 predictions post, where I’m going to detail how and why I think things are going to go this year. I’d love to get some debate going, so please comment to tell me why I am wrong – there’s nothing better than an argument.

The Arab spring
I think 2012 will see a divide emerge in the Arab spring countries, with some moving ahead whilst others struggle and still others beginningh the process. There seems to be general agreement that Syria is heading towards civil war, which I think is likely. The Assad regime is in no mood to go, whilst most of the population is against it. Add to this the religious tensions – the Assad regime is comprised of members of the small Alawite sect, while 80% of the population is Sunni – and strife indeed appears inevitable, especially as more and more armed men defect from the army. Who will win any civil war is hard to say, but it is unlikely that it would be Mr Assad. By 2013, Syria will have a new leader. Howeverr, those most likely to suffer under a new government are Christians and women, because Islamism will definitely flourish. This means the West is being cautious in what it wishes for. Sadly I think 2012 is going to see a lot of bloodshed on the streets of Hama, Homs and Damascus.
Although Lybia has already toppled (and killed) its dictator, 2012 is not going to be an easy year here either. The country is critically divided into tribes, who, without a strongman’s military control, are not likely to get on with each other. The civil war has resulted in a large number of guns being in civilians hands, which is not really a recipe for stability. And no one has a clue how to deal with the large numbers of Gadaffi loyalists who are very annoyed with life. However there is some hope that the National Transitional Council will draft a half-decent constitution and hold some fully-decent elections, providing the country does not erupt again. Even in this case, the road ahead is rocky. The NTC is by no means a legitimate body, and that makes criticism of its ideas legitimate. Islamism will grow here too, because there are not any other political parties. The different tribes are likely to start bickering about representation and oil interests. There is hope, but it’ll take hard work to fulfil it.

In Tunisia and Egypt, however, democracy is making slow but steady process. Elections have just been held in both countries – although the process in Egypt was slightly dubious. I predict that the new Constituent Assembly in Tunisia will actually get its job done, and that we will see proper elections under a good constitution sometime this year. Of course, Islamists will do well, but Tunisians are naturally moderate and I can’t see them putting up with extremism. It also helps that Tunisia is a very homogeneous country, which promotes secularism. Egypt is not extremely fractious either, but it does face more problems than its neighbour. The main one is the army – which has entrenched itself into the workings of political power and is loathe to back out and make room for civilians. It had a crucial role in Mubarak’s regime and has run the country since he fell, which means it has the power to do what it wants. When the election results are worked out, it is doubtful that the army will simply go away. Therefore I think Egyptians will spend most, if not all, of 2012 trying to get its generals back into their barracks. Once they have succeeded in this, I see no reason why they should not follow their Tunisian counterparts to democracy.

Bye bye Putin
It is not often that one witnesses 80,000 people chanting ‘Russia without Putin’ throng the streets of Moscow. Twice. It just doesn’t happen. Nor do people boo the Prime Minister when he appears at over-staged sports fixtures. Apart from now – they do. That’s why I say that Mr Putin’s days are numbered. He brought all this on himself, by taking natural Russian apathy towards politics for granted and treating his people like idiots. They are used to him fiddling elections – but he was so blatant about it that they felt that he was laughing at them (probably). They are used to him bending the rules of the constitution, but his use of Dimitri Medvedev as a pawn in his games was just too ridiculous. Patience snapped. It’s not only his fault though – it’s hardly been a good twelve months for corrupt rulers. It seems that the Arab spring has slapped Russians round the face and forced them to ask ‘why are we putting up with what they’ve succeeding in bringing down?’ And found no answer. Now Putin needs to realise that his people aren’t sheep. Theoretically, he has every chance of surviving 2012. But I don’t think he will. He is so self-assured that he is probably yet to realise how much trouble he’s in and therefore won’t make the liberalising changes that could save him. That will be his downfall. How a Russia without Putin functions will be interesting too see. In a way, it will be harder for Russia to achieve democracy than Arab countries. This is because Russia technically already has a democratic system, but it’s completely corrupted. It will have to take this structure apart before it can start building a new one.

Now this is not something backed by anything I’ve read, but I think the Communist Party of China is in line for a shock. I’m not saying that ‘Communism’ is going to fall in 2012, far from it. What I am saying is that it will become a lot harder for the Party to control dissent. We’re already seeing protests in Mongolian areas of the country and international anger at the plight of Nepal, and the internet is causing a stir. Not only can people from these areas post evidence of confrontation online, they can also debate and form ideas with people on the other side of the world. The government is trying to limit and control the internet, but its very nature mean that they can’t keep up. Liberalism is (maybe) coming to China.

The US Republican race and elections
It was a good day for liberalism and sanity when Michelle Bachmann bowed out of the race to become the Republican presidential candidate having come sixth in the Iowa caucus, and I for one breathed a sigh of relief. Looking forwards, I think Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum will be the people to watch. Mr Romney has been a favourite for a while and is vaguely normal. He has the most moderate social views, which is why Republicans might settle for him – he might be able to appeal to voters who would normally be Democrats, but are disappointed with Mr Obama. The right of the party don’t like him, but the more strategic may convince them. Mr Perry is the only darling of the mainstream right left in the race and therefore has a fair chance, because he can appeal in some way to most Americans. But he is a worrying figure. He would not only ban gay marriage, but even gay relationships. Under his presidency, abortion would be illegal. He is, quite frankly, very scary. Mr Santorum is even more conservative, and reading his website makes me actually angry. So what do I think will happen? Mr Santorum won’t make it, because moderates will balk. So it’ll end as a race between Romney and Perry, which is likely to be very close. Mr Romney is most likely to win but Perry’s right-wingers might pull their weight. And then what? If Perry wins, Obama has more hope than if Romney does. But Mr Obama is not popular – the unemployment rate is stubbornly above the 9% mark, he has not been as revolutionary as his most die-hard fans hoped, and many of his promises have not been fulfilled. Against Romney, he will have a fight on his hands. For that, I almost hope Perry wins the nomination.

Undoubtedly, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel will be seeing a lot of each other this year. Against the will of Sarkozy’s own globalisation-hating citizens, the pair will have to implement a strict regime of fiscal integration in order for the markets to give any credit to the Euro. They will get there eventually, but it will take some fighting for. As Cameron has dug himself into a hole, it is likely that Britain will become isolated and will be unable to affect EU policy. This will cause a shift of power to the East, where France and Germany will find themselves confronted with the autocratic President of Belarus, Alexander Lukahenko, whose policies are threatening the democratic values of the Union. The powers of Europe will have to decide what measures should and can be taken against on of their own members. However, I think it sadly likely that the Euro crisis will blur matters of politics and morality into the background.

Happy New Year! 2011 in review

It’s been quite the year. Let me take you back in time and show you how the world changed – mostly for the better.

January and February saw most of Europe glued to its television screens as people in the Arab world joined together in open rebellion against the despots who have ruled the Magreb for decades. At the very beginning of the year we watched first Tunisians and then Egyptians throng the streets of their capitals in huge and unprecedented numbers. We watched in awe. By the 14th January, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali had resigned and he quickly fled to Saudi Arabia. The Arab spring had been born. Within a month Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-serving strongman had suffered the same fate. Millions of people leaped up the ladder to democracy. What I think captivated the West so much was the sheer power of people. We hadn’t seen popular anger erupt like that since the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, long before I was born. We were fascinated by so much change.

As Winter turned to Spring, Japan was hit by an immense earthquake and tsunami – the strongest on record. Supply lines were destroyed and thousands of homes were destroyed when whole villages were washed away. As if that was not enough, it was not long before a new disaster unfolded. The tsunami had critically damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which soon began to leak radiation. Fears of meltdown and comparisons to Chernobyl resonated. Thousands more people were evacuated and, as other nuclear power-plants were shut-down due to public pressure, northern Japan started to suffer power cuts. Obviously, the disaster was awful for those whose lives were destroyed, but the real tragedy for the wider world might be the political shift away from nuclear power. This is sad, considering well-managed nuclear power production is one of the cleanest and greenest forms of energy. It’s bad name – which it had nearly lost – has now been reinforced by natural disaster and political failure.

In the same month, NATO launched its mission to protect civilians in Libya by creating a no-fly zone. Many warned that the problem was similar to that of Iraq in 2003 and that intervention would lead to the same disasterous consequences, which caused America to take a back-seat. Operations continued throughout the Summer, with NATO strikers disabling Colonel Gaddafi’s military capabilities in a bid to help the rebel fighters. Libya sunk into a deadly civil war.

April was gobbled up by the royal wedding – which rendered BBC News unbearable. Along side such important news the battles in Libya rumbled on. It seemed that the advantage switched sides almost daily – but the deathtoll mounted swiftly and steadily. As anger mounted against Gaddafi, Syria’s President Bashar Assad also saw increasing dissent on his streets. The military were sent in to cities, and have been engaged in running battles with peaceful protesters ever since.

May saw the Liberal Democrats destroyed by a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which also exposed the worst of British political campaigning. It also saw the arrest, after 15 years on the run, of Ratko Mladic – the Bosnian Serb general who was responsible for the Srebrenicia Massacre of 1990 in which 8,000 died. He went to trial in the Hague, raising the possibility of some justice finally being served. Then there was the big one – the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks of 2001. He was killed by US marines in a raid on his compound in a military town in Pakistan. The location of the West’s most wanted man raised some eyebrows and the once forced-cosiness of American-Pakistani relations has completely disappeared, with the US doubting the loyalty of its key ally in the so-called War on Terror. News of the death spread a somewhatd disturbing joy in America and scenes of people partying at Ground Zero raised fears of revenge attacks. Even if the press and politicians mismanaged the event, Osama bin Laden is unlikely to be missed.

The Summer was dominated by a few major stories. Fighting in Libya and Syria continued, as NATO dropped more bombs and Gaddafi looked weaker and weaker. The quick and relatively peaceful ends of Tunisia and Egypt’s regimes seemed from a different age. Closer to home, the phone hacking scandal put an end to Britain’s most-read rag, The News of the World, whose reporters had hacked the voicemail messages of – well – everyone, but things really came to a head when it emerged that they had access the messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager. Public outrage gave the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, no choice but to close the paper. It also lead to a review of the relationship between media moguls and politicians, the police’s relationship with journalists, and the standards of the press industry as a whole. The Leviston Inquiry into all this is ongoing. The media will never be the same again.

July and August were stressful months for Northern Europe, which was having a bad time of it anyway (see below). In July a far-right extremist, Anders Behring Brievik, set off a bomb in Oslo, the capital of Norway, before going on the rampage at a youth camp for young members of the Norwegian Labour Party. He killed 77 people. Amongst the horror, grief and anger, another emotion was present – surprise. The ‘War on Terror’ lead by America and Europe has concentrated so much on Islamic jihad that people could not believe that a European country had been attacked by a Christian native. It later emerged that Brievik had been protesting against the adoption of a multicultural society in Norway, and particularly the tolerance of Islam. This shocked the country, which prides itself on its acceptance and peacefulness. August saw violence erupt again, this time when several English cities witnessed mass riots and looting, reminding on lookers of the 1980s. The riots started as a protest in Tottenham, London against the police shooting of Mark Duggan in mysterious circumstances. Anger broke out into violence and the looting started. The police reacted poorly, and with a sense of hopelessness. It seems that people took this as an allowance to break the law, and over the next few days riots erupted all over London, as well as Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Although community leaders continued to blame the shooting, most of the rioters were just out to get free stuff and enjoy breaking the law. The Labour Party took the opportunity to do some cuts-bashing – blaming the lack of youth centres and job opportunities. The Tories responded by putting their tough-on-crime hats on, and got down to the business of putting people in prison. The political fall out was almost entertaining, but the violence was not. For four days the authorities had no control of the streets, and communities suffered arson and looting that destroyed homes and businesses. Whatever your political views, no one can disagree that these were sorry days for England.

Over the latter half of the year we were repeatedly shown the uselessness of the European Union as well as the incredible and unnerving power of the financial markets. European leaders repeatedly failed to reach an agreement to sort out the continent’s sovereign debt problems and save the Euro, but did manage to prevent complete collapse. Summit after summit ended in bitter political wrangling. Eventually the EU managed to force out the Greek Prime Minister, whose country’s debt was threatening to bring down the Euro. Many worried that the Union was showing too much control over the domestic politics of its member states, but the markets calmed. Not long after, the crisis claimed the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s maverick Prime Minister. The failings of the Euro had a silver lining after all. Both countries now have technocratic governments which are working to reduce their deficits. Although this state of affairs is democratically questionable, the markets seem a little happier. A deal to write-down some of Greece’s debt has also been reached, finally. However, the Euro is not safe. Talk of increasing fiscal unity and even a ‘two-speed’ Europe is both pleasing to the markets and terrifying to politicians. The Euro will (probably) survive 2012, but whether it is recognisable in a year’s time is anybody’s guess.

In Autumn the Arab spring was renewed. After the fall of Tripoli (Libya’s capital) into rebel control in August, the country was nearly free. However, Gadaffi loyalists continued to put up a bloody fight, especially from his stronghold of Bani Walid and his hometown of Sirte. It became clear that, to get anything resembling peace, Gadaffi had to be caught. Questions bounced around the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli: would he be found? would he be tried in Libya or at the Hague? was he even in the country. It was widely known that members of his family had fled into neighbouring Nigera, but no one knew if he had been among  them. However, in late October these questions proved futile. Sirte and Bani Walid fell, and Gadaffi was found by rebels hidng in a gutter in his hometown. He was killed in the chaos of his arrest (according to the rebels, although supporters say he was shot on purpose). The political arm of the rebel movement, the National Transitional Council (NTC) now had full control of the country. There is now a long road ahead – first to reconciliation and then to democracy. This may be harder for Libya than for other Arab countries, as it is deeply divided along tribal lines and because the civil war has brought a lot of guns onto the streets. However, the dictator is dead, and that is no bad thing. In Syria, on the other hand, things are still very grim. The army is still fighting with defiant protesters and the Assad regime is showing no intention of relaxing its grip. Thousands have been killed, with tens of thousands more arrested. As international sanctions begin to bite and the violence gets ever worse, it looks as if Syria is heading towards civil war. Because it is such a big regional power, such a conflict will have untold consequences. However, the Arab spring has also seen some successes recently. Tunisia held its first elections in four decades, which were said to be free and fair by international observers. The event passed without violence and all parties accepted the results. They will now begin to draft a constitution. The West will take heart that although an Islamic party secured the most votes, it is of a mild nature and did not win a majority. It has pledged to work with secular parties. Democracy in the Middle East does work.

2011 also saw the end of both American and Brittish military action in Iraq, nine years after the bombing of Baghdad and the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Since then, Iraq has been battered by sectarian violence, which the coalition troops have failed to stop. However, Iraq is now more stable than it has been since the invasion, so in some ways the mission has been a success. With the end of Labour governance in the UK, questions about the ethics of the Iraq war have become muted. One thing is clear, however, the Iraqis – for all the problems they face – are glad to see the end of foreign occupation. Politics in Iraq is still fractious. As the last US troops crossed the border into Kuwait, the main Shia faction pulled out of Parliament, leaving millions of Iraqis unrepresented and destabilising the government. A few days later, the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant on charges of terrorism for the Vice President, Tariq al-Hushemi, after he declared that bomb attacks on Baghdad were so organised that they must have been carried out by the government. Mr al-Maliki is a Shia, Mr Hushemi is a Sunni.

Many, many other events have shaped 2011 – from the start of the Republican nomination race in America, to the creation of South Sudan, to the threatening of Putin’s power in Russia, and finally the death of Kim Jong-il. These events will be changing the world for a long time – stay tuned for my predictions for 2012. Happy New Year.

Hope and dispair

The world was enthralled last December when democracy reared its head in the Middle East for the first time. It was like watching a film crescendo during January and February when the Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were literally swept away by the full force of popular opinion. All the good news made us heady as events spread and we could see a new world, at the very tip of our fingers.

Then, events plateaued. We stopped watching with joy and descended into horror. The uprising in Libya quickly led to the siege of Misrata, and NATO was dragged into a new war in the Arab world. The protesters organised themselves into rebel armies and fought against Gaddafi’s ruthless men. In Syria protesters spent the summer and autumn being gunned down in their own cities, by their own people. Still, they ignored the tens of thousands of arrests, the torturing and the murder and they kept fighting for what they believed in. In August the rebels in Libya finally took Tripoli and Gaddafi’s forty-two-year-old regime fell. Joy bounced back into the Arab spring.

The Syrians are still protesting bravely against the Assad regime, which continues to attack them. The UN is imposing tighter and tighter sanctions, and Turkey – once President’s Assad’s most loyal friend – has turned its back. It seems that the end will come, but for the Syrians it may as well be centuries away.

Recently Tunisia held its first elections (see below) which heralded the dawn of democracy, especially as they were so successful. Again, progress in Tunisia spurred its Egyptian neighbours into action. Fed up with the tortoise-paced change in their country, Egyptians surged back to Tahrir Square, the home of the revolution, to demand the resignation of Field-Marshal Tantawi. The Field-Marshal heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took power when President Mubarak was ousted. Many of its members were involved with the old regime, and there is wide-spread and legitimate scepticism about SCAF’s commitment to democracy. This scepticism increased when the army again opened fire on the new protesters. It looked as if things were going backwards.

The new violence coincided with the start of Egypt’s elections and there was a lot of panic that voting would be cancelled. Fortunately, the polling stationed opened as planned. But the process itself is complicated. People are voting for members of both the lower and upper houses of Egypt’s new Parliament, who will then be responsible for creating a new constitution. Fresh elections will apparently be held before June. This time, voting is being staged over several weeks. This is meant to give the judiciary a chance to regulate what is going on, but it also allows plenty of scope for some nasty fiddling.

The main problem is that the armed forces have become accustomed to special treatment, having been the main source of political power for decades, and are loathe to give it up. Whatever the outcome of these elections, normal politics will not exist in Egypt until the army is safely back in its barracks. And that is a long way off.

The worrying lack of news – apart from that of the World

The headlines are still dominated by the phone-hacking saga, which is now dragging on a tad. This author welcomed the resignation of the News of the World’s former Editor and CEO of News International, Rebekah Brooks, but is now getting bored. Well, I was, until the Met’s chief commissioner resigned on Sunday. I did not see that coming – not so quickly anyway. In his resignation speech the commissioner said that the up-coming public enquiries would take up too much of his time for him to do his job well. That is probably true. However, the question arises as to whether he is simply getting out early – i.e. are there more revelations to come out of the woodwork relating to police officers taking bribes from journalists? Then the deputy commissioner, John Yates, also resigned and tones sobered – the saga had now decapitated the Met. Today I woke to the alarming headline ‘Hacking witness dead’ on the front of The Times. The police said the death of Sean Hoare, who claimed that Andy Coulson was involved in the hacking, was unexplained but not suspicious.

The main point of this post is not to examine the phone-hacking scandal – newspapers and broadcasters are already picking it apart. Indeed, I would much rather document the news not making it onto the bulletins or front pages.

There were unconfirmed claims that Egypt’s ex-President, Hosni Mubarak, had slipped into a coma, although his doctors later denied this. Later it was announced that Mr Mubarak had suffered a period of very low blood pressure. However, his lawyer continued to say that the coma was real – two weeks before Mr Mubarak is due to stand trial on charges of corruption and ordering the firing of live ammunition at protesters in January. It appears, therefore that Mubarak is prepared to try anything to avoid justice. If he succeeds, Egypt’s fragile progress may skid to a halt. This would have serious consequences for the morale of those inspired by Egypt’s successes.

In Manchester, an NHS hospital has become a crime scene after three patients died when their saline drips were deliberately contaminated with insulin. Eleven other patients are said to have been victims and are being treated accordingly, and will serve as important witnesses. Security at the Stepping Hill Hospital has been increased; with a visible police presence due to an ongoing investigation. Staff and visitors are being questioned in the hope that someone saw something suspicious, but nothing has yet come to light.

A bitter humanitarian crisis has been declared in the Horn of Africa, where rain has not been seen for almost three years. Hundreds of thousands of families have been left without food as crops and animals have died, meaning that the majority of children are suffering severely from malnutrition, as are many adults. The worst affected, mainly in Somalia, are now flooding to huge refugee camps inside the borders of Kenya and Ethiopia where some aid is available. The recent influx of people has overwhelmed the camps, and aid agencies are warning that they can not cope. In Britain, money can be donated through the DEC at or by texting HELP to 70000 which gives £5. More analysis of this story soon.

A warm Arab spring or a bitter regional winter?

The Arab spring has turned into summer and looks set to continue through 2011 and beyond. Already, Egyptians and Tunisians have freed themselves from decades of autocratic rule. In Syria, a rising force of protesters is battling the army, which is still loyal to the brutal Assad regime – a close-knit family affair. Hundreds have been killed, while Bashar Assad – the President – clings onto power. Then there is Libya, where NATO forces continue to pound Col Gadaffi’s forces as they fight the rebels in a land war. So, what do I think is going to happen?

Firstly, let’s go back to January and Tunisia, where all this started. Having successfully ousted President Zine al-abidine bin Ali, Tunisians have managed to convict him of various crimes, including drugs smuggling and embezzlement. He, on the other hand, has sought exile in Saudi Arabia. This is, although a small step, a momentous event on the road to justice. Tunisia’s revolution was the spark and the most peaceful of the spring, and so it is of paramount importance that democracy is reached swiftly. If it is not, the whole civil-rights movement may fizzle out. I think, judging by the relative ease of the revolution there, Tunisia will manage to set up a stable government. The worry is that Islamic extremism will find a foothold. If this happens, the consequences for the Middle East will be horrendous, as unrest grows. A rise in Islamism in North Africa may help magnify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (See below). A stable Tunisia, however, will be held up as an example by protesters in the area, and may help other struggles reach a successful conclusion.

Similarly, the revolution in Egypt went quite smoothly and President Mubarak, having stepped down, was almost brought to justice – but then he suffered a rather convenient heart attack. Since his resignation an armed forces council has been running the country. At first, the army seemed keen to meet the demands of the protesters and outside parties. On taking power, it immediately declared that it would keep all of Egypt’s international commitments. Elections were to follow. All looked well. However, once the news cameras had refocused on new revolutions – this time in Libya and Syria – the pace of change slowed. More people were killed as the army tried to clear new protesters, angry that nothing was happening, from Tahrir Square – the focus point of the demonstrations against Mubarak. My worry is that Egypt is stuck in a rut. The initial excitement has worn off and the army does not seem to be in a hurry to relinquish power. Egyptians, weary of further unrest, may not want to cause any more mayhem by protesting again – and who can blame them? After all, over 300 people were killed in the ousting of Mubarak. No one is quite ready to take that risk again. However, having fought so hard for freedom earlier this year, the Egyptians should not allow their army to hold on to power. If they do, it would give other powerful forces – such as those in Syria – an example to follow. In effect the Egyptian army have staged a coup with the help of their people. Freedom is still far off.

The Arab spring entered a new phase when Libya and Syria saw the beginning of their own revolutions. In Libya, the protesters soon became a rebel force, who went on to capture various towns like Misrata, their unofficial capital. The conflict brought in foreign forces for the first time, when NATO convinced the UN that action had to be taken to give the rebels a chance against Col Gaddafi’s vastly superior weaponry. NATO and American forces have since pummelled Gaddafi’s army and bases, allowing the rebels to advance and take more towns. However, in the last month or so the battle for land has reached a stale-mate. The rebels know that the regime will not collapse unless one of two things happen – either the rebels capture Tripoli, the capital, or the regime implodes from within. In my view, the latter is increasingly unlikely; having survived the last few months it is hard to imagine that Gaddafi and his cronies will suddenly give in to pressure. The former option, then, is the one the rebels must focus their efforts on. However, here, again, there are problems. Firstly, the rebels are continually failing to get anywhere near Tripoli. This is because they are lacking in everything. They have not established supply chains, and even if they had, there aren’t any supplies. They desperately need heavy weaponry of their own, rather than relying on NATO to keep up. Secondly, many people in Tripoli have benefited from Gaddafi’s rule and continue to support him. They are richer and have better living standards than those who live in the rebel’s stronghold. While they still feel that Gaddafi’s rule is right for them, the rebels have no hope of taking the capital. However, as time goes on and oil and food become scarcer, these people may start to resent the regime. If they finally rise up, Gaddafi will be on a plane before anyone can blink – especially as he has just been indicted by the International Criminal Court. The people of Tripoli hold the balance of power in their hands and it is hard to tell what they will do with it. A few journalists are now bringing up a new possibility, on the basis that the Tripolians will not do anything – paralysed as they are by fear (which I think is likely). If neither side makes any headway, the country may split: with the rebels in the East and Gaddafi maintaining power in the West. This is a real possibility, I think, because Gaddafi will never step down and should the rebels accept defeat, they will be slaughtered. Mercy is not a word in Gaddafi’s vocabulary. And if the split happens, what then? A dire spectacle such as that seen when Partition occurred (when India and Pakistan split in 1947) could repeat itself as people try to get across the border. Then, of course, the rebels would have to form a stable, democratic government, which is not a given. They too may hold onto power without an official mandate, but somehow I doubt it. They have fought too long and too hard for democracy, surely they believe in it? Whatever happens, both sides, as well as NATO’s pilots, have a long slog ahead of them.

In Syria, the protests started much as they did in Tunisia and Egypt. However the regime reacted as it did in Libya, deploying the army and arresting dissidents. The army shot at crowds, spreading fear through the country. So far, approximately 1,600 people have died and tens of thousands have fled to Turkey. Tens of thousands of people have also been taken as political prisoners, with some never returning. The country is gripped by fear as, each week, protests begin after Friday prayers. Just as in Libya, the protests have not yet reached Damascus, the capital. But this is only because people have been prevented from congregating by extensive road blocks and check-points. Bashar Assad’s government looks to be close to the edge. However, there is another layer to the situation in Syria: sectarianism. The majority of the population – 80% – are Sunni Muslims, 10% are Christians and 10% are Alawites, a small division of Shia Islam to which the Assad family belongs. There is a serious risk of sectarian fighting. The Alawites do not want to lose power and are supported by the Christians in return for protection. If the Assads fall, both of these groups will be subject to revenge. And if that happens, who knows what’s in store. I don’t really have any predictions for Syria, because nothing actually seems possible. Unlike in Libya, foreign governments are unlikely to become involved. This is because Syria is a regional peace-keeper, of sorts, and a regional power house. The event of sectarian violence in Syria could lead to intervention from Iran, which is a Shia Muslim Republic and supports the Alawi sect. It is widely thought that Syria was responsible for arming the Iran-based terrorist groups in Iraq. It is easy to see how unrest in Syria could escalate violence elsewhere, spreading much more fiercely than the protests in Tunisia or Egypt.

The big question surrounding the Arab spring is what effect it will have on terrorism. The most pressing example of this is in Yemen – a fiercely tribal country already known as a hot-spot for al-Qaeda. The government has lost control of the town of Aden, once the capital of South Yemen, which united with its northern neighbour. Therein lies the problem. Although many of the country’s protesters, particularly in Sana’a the capital, are demanding freedom and human rights, the government is also fighting southern separatists as well as al-Qaeda. The official army is weak and many terrorist organisations have taken towns. The President has been taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment, having been wounded in an attack on his compound. A completely lawless Yemen will be an even better hide-out for Islamic extremists, which is why the West is so worried about the situation in the country. I share the view of many analysts that Yemen is most likely heading for civil war.

Islamism has shown itself in other areas too – most notably in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After President Mubarak was overthrown, the Brotherhood became a legal political party once more. They plan to contest the next elections, and there is a good chance that they could win – as they were seen to support the revolution and were popular as an underground party. It is hard to say what the Brotherhood would do in power; having once upheld Sharia law they have, in recent years, proclaimed to support democracy and freedom of expression. I, for one, would be pressed to guess whether they would return to their old ways or not. My hope still lies in the people, though, because having given so much for democracy they are not going to let it go easily.

The events that befall the afore-mentioned countries will have an effect in every Middle Eastern and North African state. The potential rise of Islamism will force Israel into a more protectionist stance, in turn hampering the peace process. The sectarian nature of events in Syria and Yemen could draw Iran and Iraq into the fray – although the latter is unlikely, considering the already-present problems there. The success of the current revolutions will bolster or dampen similar uprisings in other restive Arab states, especially the kingdoms of Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The next few months will be critical to the future of the entire world – a stable Middle East will bring stability globally, but continued turmoil, especially in Libya, will force more countries into the conflicts. The people of the region still have the chance to change their lives for good – but there are dangers that must be avoided.

Deposed dictator to face justice

Ever since Hosni Mubarak resigned from his post as Egypt’s President, crowds have remained in Tahrir Square, demanding that he should face justice. They wanted him tried for the use of violence against protestors in January and February, as well as for numerous abuses of power during his thirty year rule. At one point this week it seemed as if they would get what they wanted. Egypt’s Prosecutor General, who is in charge of the country’s judicial system, ordered the detention of Mr Mubarak and his two sons on Tuesday, pending further investigation. Once under questioning, however, Mr Mubarak suffered heart problems and was admitted to hospital. Many ordinary Egyptians are suspicious of the timing of his illness and they worry that he will evade punishment because of his old age and deteriorating health. Yesterday, however, state television was said to have announced a court date for Mubarak’s first trial – the 19th April. It remains to be seen whether Mr Mubarak will make a suitable recovery.