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.

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 http://www.dec.org.uk/item/506?gclid=CI761_iMjqoCFewJtAodt0Xixg or by texting HELP to 70000 which gives £5. More analysis of this story soon.

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.