The least you’d expect of a disgraced politician is to bow out of the limelight. Not Silvio Berlusconi with his grandstanding and rent-a-crowd.
Tuesday 14 May 2013
Would you buy a used car from this man? Photo: Lorenza and Vincenzo Iaconianni
The Sicilian team Trapani Calcio made history at the weekend by winning the Serie B football competition. I know this because I was stuck in a taxi crawling through the flag-waving crowd that poured into the city to bask in a rare winning moment for a struggling region.
Our driver honked his horn at the passing motorcade of chequered maroon and white flags – not as an expression of road rage or frustration at the slow progress, or his passengers’ very real fear of missing their flight, but as a shared moment of noisy joy. “It’s fabulous Trapani wins … corruption possibly, but a big success,” he told us.
The night before, I watched a televised speech by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former premier, as he grandstanded before a rally of more flag-waving Italians, but this time in the northern part of the country.
According to the Associated Press, the ‘Everyone for Silvio’ rally was backed by his People of Freedom party in Brescia, a small industrial city that is a bastion of the conservative leader’s political support. A handful of detractors shouted “jail, jail” at the edge of the rally, but the police reportedly kept them apart from the majority who were waving pro-Berlusconi banners.
“Anyone who is not caught up by political factionalism can see clearly that there are politically motivated magistrates who are blinded by hate and prejudice towards me,” he told the crowds on Saturday night, days after losing his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, and days before the Milan judiciary was due to deliberate on charges of paying for sex with a minor.
The least you would expect of a disgraced politician or leading figure is a bowed head and a dash for a waiting black car, or a nervous apology on the 6 o’clock news. In Italy, in Berlusconi’s Italy, you get a full stage, mounted cameras, and a neat rent-a-crowd of acolytes to help you sell your lies.
Berlusconi holds no ministerial position in this new coalition government which is led by Italy’s centre-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta. He does, however, wield considerable clout in the corridors of power and, according to commentators, could bring down the government if he were to withdraw support in parliament.
The fact that his Mediaset company owns three free-to-air national TV channels in Italy, including naturally the one televising the recent rally I watched, is shocking but no real shocker to clear-eyed observers of Italian politics and business. Critics, including The Economist magazine, have long argued that Berlusconi holds inappropriate control over national media and that he is unfit to hold leadership positions in Italy, or sit next to legitimate European leaders.
Berlusconi’s two dates with the court raise questions yet again about his political future at a delicate moment for Italy, as it faces economic and political turmoil, and increasing pressure from Europe to put its house in order. It is remarkable to anyone outside Italy that he was even allowed to take part in the country’s February elections – and that people voted for him.
That a disgraced politician should be anywhere near politics or be deemed fit to own national media is stupefying. That he has a national platform to ‘rally’ support for his brand of conservative politics which clearly has not delivered Italy from the throws of economic collapse is bordering on criminal negligence. Negligence that casts a shadow over the European Union’s credibility and economy.
Shame on Italy and Europe for allowing this corruption of democratic values to go on this long.
I was part of a BBC investigation team that was formed to reveal unexposed facts about “Egypt’s Stolen Billions”. The team produced a documentary on unfrozen assets in the UK related to the Mubarak regime which was aired recently on BBC Arabic.
Decades of authoritarian corruption helped Mubarak and his family and friends accumulate tens of billions of pounds, leaving millions of Egyptians living in dire poverty. It is impossible to measure accurately the economic cost of Mubarak’s rule, but figures from the World Bank suggest that $134.4 billion (817 billion Egyptian pounds) worth of public assets went missing over the past 30 years.
So far Switzerland has frozen $800 million and the the UK about $120 million in assets related to the Mubarak regime, but Egypt hasn’t yet seen a penny of it returned. To do so, Egypt must prove that the money was “ill-gotten” first.
“It is crucial that the recovery and return of stolen assets is lawful,” Alistair Burt, UK Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said in an official statement published on the website of the British embassy in Cairo last week. “It is simply not possible for the UK to deprive a person of their assets and return them to an overseas country in the absence of a criminal conviction and confiscation order.”
However, this statement, even though it sounds reasonable, ignores the legal challenges involved in proving the wrongdoings of the Mubarak regime.
To identify the truth amid the many rumours surrounding this sensational issue, it was necessary for the team to find solid and documented evidence of the systematic impoverishment of Egypt at the hands of its former rulers, who received the official status of being a network of organised crime from the Swiss government in May, as the BBC team has discovered.
During my quest in Cairo, I sipped tea and ate liver sandwiches on street cafes with dissident government officials. We spoke to economists, lawyers, activists, members of parliament and bankers over more than six months. Their reactions to our investigation ranged from daily calls to offer assistance to suspicion I was a spy working for the Mubaraks.
They were all trying relentlessly to expose facts about the Mubarak regime’s corruption. The problem is that they were trying to prove it according to existing laws which were put in place by the Mubarak institutions.
The parliament – which is responsible for drafting and passing legislation – was completely dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party through vote-buying, rigging and political intimidation.The cabinet was also dominated by businessmen belonging to the ruling party. Since 2004, the Council of Ministers was unofficially known as the “businessmen’s cabinet”.
Reda Eissa, an independent economic researcher, shows through his research how certain companies benefited from tax laws and breaks introduced by these institutions for their own benefit. Companies owned by figures close to the regime ended up paying almost no to very little taxes. The Six of October Development and Investment Company (SODIC), a real-estate giant by Mubarak’s in-law Magdy Rasekh, was paying about 0.5% in tax, according to Eissa’s study.
I found out from my sources that in Mubarak’s Egypt, the laws allowed some banks, such as the Arab International Bank (AIB), to escape the monitoring of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) or any other local authority. This meant that some Egyptian banks could transfer any sums of ill-gotten gains without the knowledge of the CBE. The transactions simply did not appear on any records accessible to the authorities as stated by the law.
The founding charter of the AIB, which was established as a joint project in 1974 between the governments of Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, states that the bank falls outside the authority of local governments and is therefore exempt from taxation, exchange controls and the CBE’s auditing regulations.
The bank was the subject of many allegations for being a channel for suspicious money transfers before, during and after the revolution. More than a year after the revolution, the bank finally responded by stating on its website that it falls under the jurisdiction and supervision of the Central Bank.
The team was also able to meet many dissident bureaucrats who have gathered hundreds of documents and are still struggling with them in the Egyptian courts. These dissident bureaucrats provided the BBC with proof of another “legal” practice which allowed for the exploitation of the country’s wealth. The government, namely the ministries of tourism and housing, had the legal authority to allocate land by direct order at prices they decided to whomever they chose without recourse to any proper tendering process.
The bureaucrats gave us evidence that in many cases the land was gravely undervalued and given to either Mubarak’s in-laws or close friends. The documents, of which some are official government reports, show that due to this undervaluation Egypt has lost tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds in revenues – even though the practice was perfectly “legal”.
“We talk about $200 billion that were stolen illegally, but if you discuss the lawful mechanism that was unethical, we are talking about a trillion dollars,” says Mohamed Mahsoub, the current Minister of Legal Affairs in the recently-appointed cabinet.
When a mafia-like group ‘owns’ a state with its legislative, judicial and executive powers, corruption no longer becomes illegal. This ‘organised crime’ network, fostered by the family of Egypt’s ousted dictator, was not operating outside the law, because they were the law – in fact, they were everything.
Laws were simply drafted by them for their benefit. Law enforcement institutions were also their own private property. Accordingly, any effort to prove the Mubarak regime money was ill-gotten should not focus on whether they brok laws of their own making. What is acquired on illegitimate grounds should, by extension, also be illegal. The focus instead should be on the much easier task of proving the regime was an unelected dictatorship which benefited financially from being in power, even if on paper, it was all “legal”.
With the surge in polarised power politics, young Hungarians, excluded and frustrated, are falling prey to extremism and its twin menace, apathy.
Wednesday 5 September 2012
Our dinner on a summer night started with a shot of Palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. The occasion that had brought all these family and friends together was the name day (névnap) of one of the guests, a tradition in many countries celebrating the day of the saint after whom one is named. Although name days are not celebrated in my country (the Netherlands), it was a nice opportunity to get together, eat, drink and talk.
The dinner started very cordially. We talked about Hungarian wines, the weather, the ins and outs of the divorce of close friends, and made fun of the dissatisfaction of one of the guests with the amount of meat in the food.
The calm didn’t last long. Soon enough, the topic switched to Hungarian politics. One of our guests started to talk furiously about what he regarded as the biased international news coverage of Hungarian affairs: “The international media very often paints a picture of Hungary as the new antisemitic, racist hub of Europe which is growing into a dictatorship,” he complained.
In his view, what is happening in Hungary is sensationalised and ignores the efforts made in the country to improve the situation and forge a sense of collectivity in society. Maybe it was because of the wine and the Palinka, but our guest’s face started to turn an alarming shade of red.
While until two years ago Hungary was only occasionally mentioned in the international media, recent developments in the country have become hot news. The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist regularly publish updates on Hungarian politics, and more and more blogs devoted to following the latest developments are appearing online. Since Viktor Orbán and his right-wing conservative Fidesz party gained a two-thirds majority in the parliamentary elections of 2010, various controversial laws and a new constitution are being implemented in the country. The European Commission is closely monitoring the new media law, in which a media authority is appointed to vet whether journalists report in a “moral” and “objective” way. In addition, the IMF and Orbán are playing cat and mouse around the sensitive issues of the independence of the Hungarian central bank and possible financial help.
On 31 August, Ramil Safarov, an Azeri soldier serving his sentence in Hungary for killing an Armenian soldier in Budapest in 2004, was sent home to Azerbaijan. The release of Safarov, and the rumoured money involved, made this peculiar international gesture by the Hungarian government headline news abroad.
However, while the big fish are being watched, little attention is paid to what must be the small fry in the view of the international media: the Hungarian people themselves. To get an idea of what young Hungarians think, I asked the son of our furious guest to share his views on the ongoing debate. He looked at me, smiled, took a big sip of his wine and said: “You know, there are two sides in Hungary that do not talk to each other, both of them say something different, none of them tells the truth, and it doesn’t make a fucking difference what you think. That is the system I live in. Besides, nagyon nem szeretek politizálni, I really do not like to talk politics.”
Being half-Hungarian myself, that last sentence did not sound unfamiliar to me at all. I once talked about the broader meaning of the word politizálni with my friend Thomas Escritt, a journalist who writes regularly about Hungary. “Besides the fact that the word politizálni does not exist in English, it is difficult to translate because the semantics are all different,” he noted. “In Northern Europe, talking about politics is regarded as boring. In Holland, it means I’m not square, I prefer to talk about women. In Hungary, talking about politics is dangerous. ‘Nem szeretek politizálni’ means I’m innocent, leave me alone.”
Well, let’s go against this traditional Hungarian aversion and talk politics, and those two sides our young guest was describing. The ruling Fidesz party forms a powerful rightwing conservative bloc with its solid majority in the parliament. According to the most recent polls, Orbán’s party is still the most popular, with 30.4% of Hungarians supporting it. On the far right, Jobbik (the third largest party, with 14.5% in the most recent polls) gives voice to the extreme manifestation of nationalist sentiments currently bubbling up in Hungary, with one of their main goals being to wipe out gypsy or Roma “criminality” and to halt the supposed dominance of Jews in Hungarian politics and finances.
On the left side of the political spectrum, the second biggest party in Hungarian politics (20.5%) is the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), whose credibility shrank dramatically after the notorious “Balatonőszöd speech” in 2006. In this speech, the former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, admitted to his fellow party members that “we have been lying for the last one and a half to two years” about the economic situation in Hungary. The confidential speech was taped and broadcasted by Magyar Rádió (Hungarian Radio), which led to mass protests and riots in Hungary.
In 2011, Gyurcsány officially distanced himself from MSZP when he formed the newest, smallest party in Hungary, the Democratic Coalition, or DK, (2.4%). Together with Jobbik, the green party, which is known as Politics Can Be Different, or LMP (6.8%), attracts a high percentage of young voters. But the biggest political winner in Hungary seems to be apathy or disillusionment, with 48.6% of Hungarian saying they are undecided.
The political discourse is not particularly friendly. The ‘Socialists’ and ‘Liberals’ accuse the rightwing conservatives of being nationalistic, close-minded and sometimes even fascistic. These “Nazis”, in their turn, argue that the “ex-Commies” are sellout hippies who let Israel and Western European countries eat up the Hungarian economy, and that they will NOT allow Hungary to be dominated by the European Union after years of Soviet occupation. “Hungary for the Hungarians,” insist the conservatives, whether they live inside or outside of the modern borders of the country.
In the course of my research on Hungarian youth and their relationship with ultra-nationalist, rightwing politics, I have found plenty of examples that fit the discourse of both the right and left. During the filming for my documentary All for Hungary, which explores why a significant proportion of students in higher education identify with the Jobbik party, I talked to numerous young people, such as during the rallies organised to mark the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.
The first guy in the video above explained that voting for Jobbik was a logical decision. In his view, the left is corrupt, the right has turned bad too, the greens live in a utopian tomorrow, and so the extreme right is the only way to build Hungary’s future – this, to him, made perfect sense. This young man looks quite friendly, and keen on kick-starting that political career, so why not start in front of the camera.
The second group in the video – with their camouflage trousers and heavy boots – has a much darker aura surrounding them. These young men are all university students, but they don’t look very inviting to start a political discussion with. They seem to fit the “close-minded” and “fascist” stereotypes.
Let’s skip a few months and move on to another event which took place earlier this year. While Orbán assured tens of thousands at a pro-government rally that “over his dead body” would he allow the European Union to reduce Hungary to the status of a “colony”, Milla (One Million for the Freedom of the Press in Hungary) organised a counter-demonstration. What started as a Facebook group against restrictive media laws grew into a broader civil organisation opposed to the current societal developments in Hungary and the restrictive politics of the Fidesz party.
Several friends and I went out on the streets to canvass young people at this gathering on what kind of Hungary they wanted to live in. The young man in the video below – who wants to live in a society where it is not seen as strange or unusual for people to help the poor and refuse “to live in shit” – would probably fit perfectly into the rightwing stereotype of the blabbering “hippy” leftist who believes that all you need is love.
It is very easy to identify examples that fit the stereotypes. And everyone uses stereotypes to a certain degree. They are, after all, a way of making the world seem less complicated and easier to grasps. But they do not help us to understand society and the root causes behind societal developments and the choices people make. While politics may be the area of life where stereotypes are used the most, it is also where they can be most dangerous.
We need to look further and explore what motivations are behind political affiliations and listen to what different parties have to say. This is one of the core problems in Hungarian politics: people do not actually listen to each other and are satisfied to dehumanise and demonise their opponents. The consequence? Society becomes polarised and fractured, instead of unified, on every single level.
As the partisans of the right spin further apart from the left in Hungary, much of the population is left, as the earlier poll suggested, stuck in the middle, unhappy with both sides. Many Hungarians agree with what our young guest asserted: “It doesn’t make a fucking difference what you think. That is the system I live in.”
This disillusionment, along with high unemployment, might explain why a recent survey, carried out by Hungary’s TÁRKI social research institute, showed that nearly half of Hungarians aged 19 to 29 wants to emigrate.
By courting his rivals, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi could turn former allies into foes and bring to the fore the divisions among Islamists.
Monday 2 July 2012
Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Mursi, realises that he stands on shaky ground. He probably senses that many political groups, segments of the police state, the former regime, and regular members of the public would love to see him fail.
This is why he was quick to try and win the public’s hearts and minds by working to counter fears many people would naturally have about an Islamist president. He met with artists and novelists, while promising to appoint a Copt and a woman as vice-presidents. He also reassured the security services that not much will change by stating clearly in his meeting with police leaders that he rejects the term ‘cleanse’ when it comes to police reform.
One thing is for sure, both his opponents and proponents will be closely watching his performance. There is great hope to see him succeed and burning desire to witness him fail. Someone even established an online barometer, the ‘Morsi Meter’, to monitor and measure his actual performance against his pledges.
Of course, it is to be expected that the predators out for Mursi’s hide include secularists, liberals, summer holidaymakers at the North coast’s gated resorts, club-goers, whiskey drinkers, vodka sippers, opposition parties, perhaps members of the old regime, not to mention the Armed Forces. However, against all expectations, the main and most serious opposition might come from his own backyard: some factions of what is referred to as the Islamist movement.
Early signs of the kinds of clashes that might occur in the future can be seen in the Salafist al-Nour party’s rejection of Mursi’s decision to appoint Coptic and female vice-presidents, because such moves would contradict their interpretation of Sharia. They have reportedly threatened to withdraw from the presidential team if Mursi insists on taking these steps.
The full participation of Islamists in political and public life is a reality many still find hard to digest, which is why many people can’t get their head around the deep ideological divides between the different shades of political Islam. As a result, they think of them as a homogeneous force.
Centrist Islamist parties, such as al-Wasat and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, could be better compared to the Christian Democratic parties in Europe, which are mainly characterised by their liberal, or neo-liberal, economic policies, but they remain moderately conservative on social matters, which are a lesser priority. The Brotherhood’s focus on the economy and their long history of working with all other political groups, including leftists, Arab nationalists, and liberals allowed them to develop a more pragmatic and moderate approach to certain ideological issues.
This was clear in Mursi’s visits, meetings and speeches after he was announced the winner. His reception of prominent author Alaa Al-Aswany, who is known for his progressive views, sexually explicit novels and his criticism of political Islam, shows that the Islamist organisation is willing to make concessions and extend a hand of cooperation even to those who sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
On the other hand, Salafi Islamist groups are more concerned with moral and social matters, and maintaining certain religious demographics. They wouldn’t shy away from resorting to violence and radical politics if needed. Unlike reformist Islamists, they don’t always work their way up the existing political system and institutions.
Salafists lack the Brotherhood’s pragmatism. This could be due to their strict ideological stances, their relatively short political history, or a combination of the two. It seems inevitable that Salafist rigidity will affect Mursi, accusing him of warming up too much to liberals and not staying true to his promise of establishing their own definition of an ‘Islamic society’. It’s not only priorities that differ, but Islamists also disagree on many fundamental juristic issues related to women’s rights, freedom of religion, corporal punishment, and so on.
This deep intrinsic ideological difference within what is collectively referred to as political Islam will rise to the surface now that the Muslim Brotherhood faces, for the first time, the pressures of making real political decisions after long decades of abstract ideas and mere talk. The Brotherhood is too pragmatic and economy-oriented to want to scare away tourists and investors and create enemies at home and abroad in the early days of their rule. But in the process of trying to make his traditional rivals happy, it is very possible that Mursi might accidentally turn old mates into new foes.
This article first appeared in The Daily Newson 1 July 2012. Republished here with the author’s permission.
Was Robert Mugabe’s appointment as UN ‘tourism ambassador’ an unforgivable travesty or can ‘guilt-edged tourism’ trigger reform in dictatorships?
Thursday 7 June 2012
Despite no formal title being bestowed upon the controversial ‘dear leader’ of Zimbabwe, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said the association with Robert Mugabe in the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) was “outrageous” and symbolised “what is wrong with the UN”.
So, how did this farce come about? The story goes that UNWTO’s Secretary-General Taleb Rifai recently met the ageing Mugabe, along with Zambia’s President Michael Sata, at Victoria Falls on the country’s shared border.
According to a story in the UK daily, The Telegraph, the three signed an agreement that UNWTO’s 20th General Assembly would be hosted there in 2013. Both presidents were then invited to “join hands with other world leaders and add [their] voice to our effort to position travel and tourism higher on the global agenda”. Rifai reportedly praised Zimbabwe for its hospitality. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination,” he said.
But criticism has poured in from around the world about the UN’s poor judgement, not only in this case, but in several other high-profile decisions in recent months. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the US House Foreign Affairs chair, went as far as to accuse the UN of “propping up dictators“, but that it had hit a “new low” naming Mugabe as a tourism envoy.
“[As] if North Korea chairing the Conference of Disarmament and Cuba serving as vice-president of the Human Rights Council had not been enough,” she is quoted as saying. “The continued rewards the UN bestows upon the world’s dictators has reached the point of absurdity. An organisation devoted to world peace and stability is propping up and aiding the very regimes that oppose such ideals.”
In its defence…
The World Tourism Organisation is a relative newcomer to the United Nations table and is perhaps showing its inexperience. And it is not even the only international tourism organisation on the block, with the World Travel and Tourism Council also exerting significant influence in the sector – which may grow if UNWTO continues to bungle international relations on this level.
The UN describes its association with the WTO, a “specialised agency”, as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism know-how. “UNWTO plays a central and decisive role in promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, paying particular attention to the interests of developing countries … [It] encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, with a view to ensuring that member countries, tourist destinations and businesses maximise the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism and fully reap its benefits, while minimising its negative social and environmental impacts.”
Even a cursory glance at this manifesto reveals a few major missteps in cozying up with Mugabe, despite his country clearly qualifying for much-needed economic development. Under Mugabe’s three decades of rule, Zimbabwe’s economy has deteriorated from a mini-powerhouse of southern Africa to a spluttering basket-case. Crony politics has all but destroyed the country’s once robust and well developed agricultural sector. Combined with a decade of hyperinflation, low growth, massive debt, decrepit public services and knowledge flight, as the skilled and educated seek opportunities elsewhere, and you have a potent compote for a failed state.
According to the African Economic Development Institute (AEDI), President Mugabe’s Land Acquisition Act of 2000, which led to a massive redistribution of arable lands from thousands of experienced white farmers to less experienced black farmers, set the scene for economic failure. The plan was reportedly supported by Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, who said at the time, “The equitable distribution of productive capital, such as land, is not only economically important, but also essential to ensure peace and stability.”
The AEDI explained in a 2009 report on ‘The failing economy of Zimbabwe’ that Zimbabwe’s Land Acquisition Act had amplified a serious food shortage crisis. “If Zimbabwe cannot provide itself the basic elements of survival, such as clean water and food, there is very little prospect of any economic development,” it concluded.
So, Zimbabwe was in terrible shape in 2009, but what about 2012? There are some positive signs, at least when it comes to the economy. According to Africa News, Zimbabwe‘s economic outlook is bright. “The establishment of a government of national Unity (GNU) in February 2009 and the adoption of a multi-currency regime brought about economic recovery and price stability, and strong recovery will continue this year.”
Agricultural output, it reported, rose 15% in 2009 and 34% in 2010, largely from increased tobacco production. However, growth in manufacturing output slowed down to less than 3% in 2010 compared with 10% in 2009. This year, farm output is expected to increase as more land was put under tillage last year.
The pariah state of Myanmar springs to mind as a similar international relations debate to that facing Zimbabwe now: do you prop open the door of a dictator by maintaining dialogue, or in the case of tourism encourage visitors to go there, or do you nail it closed, thus blocking any chance of light or change getting in?
This ‘guilt-edged tourism’ debate (read about it in my book Tourism and the media), has swirled mostly over the skies of Cuba and Myanmar, with the jury perhaps still out on both. But there are signs that greater openness and exposure to tourists and (it should be said) their dollars, euros, yens and yuans, at least opens the door to these notoriously tricky leaderships.
Could the same be said of Zimbabwe? Has the UNWTO acted in the spirit of its doctrine of “promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism” or has it overstepped its mark, or just plain lost its way in a misguided attempt to sew up the world’s tourism patchwork?
In my humble opinion, the door needs to be open just enough to nourish any grassroots democratic and economic seeds worth reviving. Zimbabwe is clearly showing some signs of improvement since the GNU entered power in 2009, with opposition figure Morgan Tsangeri as prime minister. But there is too much bad blood – both internal and with the international community – with Mugabe still on the political scene.
The ageing leader will clearly jump on any warming in international relations at this stage of his career. At 88, he will be looking at legacies. Forgotten is his earlier role as the statesman who steered the country out of colonial rule. Remembered will be his role in the country’s economic decline and political repression, and perhaps even his newly bestowed title of tourism “ambassador” with a small ‘a’. Another dictator addicted to power goes from hero to zero.
With the right president, Egypt could rid itself of nepotism and inequality to become a prosperous and egalitarian society.
Wednesday 23 May 2012 (first published Sunday 17 January 2010)
This article was written a year before the revolution erupted in Egypt and envisioned the then fantastical notion that Mubarak would be convinced to step aside in 2011 and allow free and fair elections to choose his successor. With that in mind, I dreamed of what I would do as president to fix Egypt, and much of my imaginary programme is still relevant: limiting the powers of the presidency, rooting out nepotism and corruption, addressing the issue of sectarian strife, promoting greater economic justice, slashing military spending, abolishing conscription and spending more on education and research. So, I am republishing this now as my modest advice to Egypt’s next president.
While in most countries, even the most democratic, becoming president or prime minister is a far-fetched dream for almost everyone, in Egypt, the prospect exists mostly in the realm of fantasy. In the six or so decades since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has had just four leaders, none of whom were elected – at least not in free and fair elections.
The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has held the top seat for the past three decades or so. This means that the majority of Egyptians, given the country’s “youth bulge”, have known no other leader.
Next year, Mubarak’s current term will end and, given his age and health, most Egyptians don’t expect him to seek a sixth term. Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011, fear terrible instability and disruption, and some might even settle for “business as usual” in the form of Mubarak’s son, Gamal – at least for a few years.
Reform-minded Egyptians hope that Mubarak will step aside honourably and take the unprecedented step of calling free and fair elections to find a replacement. The most popular potential candidate at the moment is former IAEA chief and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed el-Baradei, despite the fact that he has lived and worked outside Egypt for decades.
el-Baradei’s popularity is not only a sign of his international standing but also indicates the Egyptian regime’s unofficial policy of engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. Personally, I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm, though I doubt that Islamists are ready in the wings to take over. Nevertheless, I cannot help but hold out hope that 2011 will mark the birth of true Egyptian democracy.
Upon taking office, and to avoid the temptations of power that have led so many initially well-meaning Egyptian leaders astray, I would probably begin with strengthening and shoring up Egypt’s institutions, from the parliament to the judiciary, to ensure an effective separation and balance of powers. But top-down reforms can, at best, only play the role of a catalyst, and not bring about lasting change in themselves. In order to harness Egypt’s massive grassroots potential, I would end the culture of fear and intimidation – at least, the state-sponsored side of this – that keeps Egyptians down.
I would strive to remove all the unconstitutional and undemocratic laws, such as those hindering freedom of expression and conscience, and dismantle Egypt’s enormous police and state security apparatus.
In order to counteract and reverse growing religious fundamentalism and communal strife I would dig up the roots, rather than chop violently away at the outgrowth. A fish rots from the head down, so it is important to launch a serious campaign to root out corruption, first from the highest echelons of society.
More generally, it is essential to challenge the widespread practice of wasta – which permeates all levels of society and causes widespread cynicism and disenchantment – by strictly enforcing the rule of law, without making exceptions for the well-connected. This will be no mean feat, given how deeply ingrained the notion is, but if Egypt is to become a true meritocracy it is a crucial battle that must be won.
Then there’s the economy, which is often erroneously viewed as somehow separate from society. Seeking political and social justice is meaningless if their economic counterpart continues to be denied – in fact, rather than more growth, Egypt needs more economic justice. Egypt’s economy needs not only to continue to develop, but to do so sustainably and equitably.
In a country where economic inequality has grown to chronic proportions, the chasm between the have-alls and the have-nots needs desperately to be bridged. This should be done through a fair, effective and enforced progressive taxation system, as well as the reinstatement and further development of the country’s dismantled social safety net and concerted government investment directed at stimulating Egypt’s impoverished rural hinterland and neglected south.
This requires not just internal reform but also a revamping of the global economic system to make it fairer for developing countries. In addition, the strong arm with which the US-led west imposes its hegemony could foil such efforts if my “pinko” reforms are deemed somehow to be antagonist to US interests in the region.
In parallel with promoting economic justice, competitiveness also needs to be stimulated in order to generate the necessary wealth to boost everyone’s well-being. This requires robust and enforceable regulations that level out the economic playing field and weed out the de facto monopolies and cartels that plague the Egyptian economy, as well as reforming the country’s bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.
One reason why superstition reigns and people hark back to a mythical and glorious past is because they feel they lack a future. To give the coming generations a sense of purpose and to allow current generations to build a better future, I would slash military spending and abolish conscription, then use the released resources to invest heavily in education and scientific research.
Of course, I realise that my vision is but a dream untainted by political realities. Even a well-meaning, democratically elected president would have his or her work cut out simply steering Egypt away from the rocks towards which it is currently heading. The kind of transformation I dream of cannot be implemented by any one leader but will take generations of patient and careful change. But with the right political and civil leadership, Egypt can reinvent itself as a prosperous, modern and egalitarian society.
This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 17 January 2010.
Although many Europeans associate it with political turmoil, the Basque Countryis the only Spanish region where the economic outlooks is mild.
Tuesday 13 March 2012
In the summer months, the beachside cafés in the Sagües quarter of San Sebastián (Basque Country, Spain) are bustling. The surfers take their morning session, while tourists, local youth and middle-aged clientele take their mid-afternoon cañas, or small beers. Walking through the parte vieja – old quarter of the city – a sign reads: “Tourists beware you are not in Spain, nor France, you are in the Basque Country”. Something seems very different here.
You get the impression that the financial crisis has not taken hold here. Nevertheless, the winter months are hard for the service sector. Juan Ramon, a local taxi driver, confirms the difficulties of keeping one’s head above water in the ‘off-season’. Elena, one of the owners of La Consentida, a pintxos bar along the normally thriving coastal avenue, La Zurriola, notes the effects of the now four-year crisis. “Every day we are worried about business, but winter is always especially difficult,” she says.
Although things may be bad in the Basque Country, the situation is worse in the rest of Spain, especially in the south where mass tourism plays a huge role. But the Basque Country has a different background. Its research centres and traditional industries are still fairing well in the financial storm.
Amid soaring unemployment and fears of a double-dip recession in Spain, the Basque Country offers a contrasting picture. The Spanish situation is grim, with 5.3 million unemployed at the end of 2011, the Bank of Spain predicts that the country’s economy will fall into another recession, contracting by 1.5% in 2012, which would exacerbate the 22.9% unemployment rate reported at the end of 2011, according to the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE).
Meanwhile, the Basque Country has the lowest unemployment rate of all the Spanish regions, known as Autonomous Communities, and has maintained comparatively lower levels for decades. With a population of 2.16 million, the Basque Country’s unemployed is 159,667. That’s just 7.4% unemployment, way below the Spanish average.
But why is the Basque country weathering the financial storm better than the rest of Spain? It goes back to basic economic drivers… industry and production. Iron mining and steel manufacturing helped build this region and, unlike the UK and other struggling European economies, the Basque Country is not letting go of them without a fight.
Heavy mining at the turn of the 19th and well into the 20th century gave the Basque region a solid economic base and provided steady employment for skilled and unskilled workers, including economic migrants. Today, the Basque Country’s level of industrialisation is greater than the EU average.
The Basques have also been able to reinvent themselves, with EU backing and opportunities. Through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the EU has €241 million in co-funding destined for the Basque Country under the Regional Competitiveness and Employment programme (2007-2013). The funds are devoted to areas that are already highly developed in the Basque Country, including science and technology, research and development, environment, energy resources, and transport.
The tiny Basque Country punches above its weight politically as well, offering its expertise to the EU in such fields as taxation policy, health, the environment, transportation, e-democracy, agriculture, language and culture, and even fishing policy. According to one MEP from the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), “The Basque Government is in continual contact with the European Commission in formal and informal settings.”
But does all this direct contact between the EU and the Basque region create greater tension with Madrid? Yes and no.
In considering the absence of a Spanish central state-sponsored representation mechanism, an official from the Spanish Permanent representation to the EU notes, “It is a weakness of the system that the Autonomous Communities do not have the capacity to be able to negotiate and be represented here in Brussels,” at least through the central state.
As an autonomous region you would expect some, well, ‘autonomy’ in its dealings with the EU, but Spain can’t help but be envious of the Basque Country’s clout and strong ties to the EU. For the Basques, though, it is pure logic: why wait for Madrid – or negotiate a shared position with the other Autonomous Communities – when you can act directly at the EU level?
This thinking applies on many levels, including how the Basques fund their research. Tortuero Martin, a government expert, explains that funding is arranged through an agreement between the management agency or authority and those in charge of employment policy in the Autonomous Communities. “There is regional source of funding, and it doesn’t come from the budget of the state in Spain,” he stresses.
Moreover, the Basques have the means and institutions in place to lobby the EU directly, which is arguably a more robust form of negotiating than the sclerotic traditional power structures. This nimble, somewhat informal, approach could well be the Basques regions secret weapon, helping it weather the financial storm and defy the dire predictions for the Spanish economy.
Information technology is being hailed as the new face of socially responsible business.
Friday 10 February 2012
Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is getting a makeover thanks to the emergence of ultra-fast, ultra-smart, ubiquitous information and communications technologies (ICT). This match-up is the beginning of an unexpected but somehow quintessential relationship explored in a refreshing exhibition hosted this week in Brussels.
Companies are embracing cutting-edge technology to save on costs and deliver competitive advantage in these tough economic times. But what many may not appreciate is that this economically rational decision can have profound social benefits, too. ICTs can boost an organisation’s CSR activities, which has a cascading effect along whole value chains, from stakeholders and staff to suppliers and service providers.
The five dimensions of ICT4CSR
Political … giving people a voice
Geographical … bringing people together virtually
Economic … bringing markets closer to home
Societal … providing access to education, knowledge and opportunities
Environmental … green technology helping to tackle climate change
The term ‘corporate social responsibility’ dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s but has entered more mainstream use since the publication of R Edward Freeman’s book, Strategic management: a stakeholder approach, in 1984. Through CSR activities – donations, community work, ‘green’ operations, etc. – organisations look beyond shareholder value alone in search of positive outcomes for all stakeholders (consumers, employees, communities, the environment).
Providing technology is only part of the contribution that ICT companies can make, experts suggest. The industry is uniquely placed to help local communities around the world, to nurture talented people, and to help developing countries find innovative solutions to the pressing challenges they face.
In 2010 alone, the ICT industry contributed betwen 30% and 40% to the economic growth of developed countries.
Hosted at the European Parliament from 6 to 9 February, the exhbition, entitled ‘ICT4CSR: Enriching life through communications’ tells a story of how ICT provides fertile ground for companies to nurture ideas, talents and people which eventually come to fruition in the form of better (digital) working conditions, safeguards for the environment, and myriad ways for enriching society.
Thus, in the right hands, CSR is much more than a company’s way of easing its conscience, the fair suggests. To organisations that embrace it fully, it becomes a way of life, a way of operating with integrity and a way to promote the harmonious and sustainable development of the economy, society, and environment.
Unusual digital dividend
Governments worldwide are investing in the huge potential of digital communications technology to connect people, transcending boundaries and bringing communities together to benefit one another. Europe is no exception.
“It’s my dream to get every European digital,” wrote Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, on her blog. “And that means everyone needs to be covered by fast broadband connections.”
The Digital Agenda for Europe focuses on ICTs’ capability to reduce energy consumption, support ageing citizens’ lives, revolutionise health services and deliver better public services. Its targets include broadband of at least 30Mbps for everyone by 2020 with half of European households subscribing to connections of 100Mbps or higher.
The widespread rollout of very fast, ‘always on’ internet provides solutions to a number of local, regional and global challenges. For instance, access to education in remote villages. With satellite broadband solutions and advances in e-learning, village children can benefit from home schooling using interactive, multimedia lesson plans.
“Having access to the internet and other ICTs will not just be the privilege of the few,” commented MEP Robert Sturdy during the opening of the exhibition. “I truly believe that smarter, greener, targeted ICT can change the way we work and live, for the better, no matter which corner of the world you are from.”
A 10% increase in broadband penetration will improve GDP by 1.3%. And high-speed internet also enables businesses, especially small ones, to remain competitive and allows consumers to take advantage of advanced online services that improve their quality of life, from e-commerce to e-government services.
Egypt’s junta and its army of collaborators have betrayed the Egyptian revolution, but the people will rise again.
Saturday 21 January 2012
An Egyptian wakes up almost one year after what he thought had been a finished revolution only to realize how abandoned and betrayed he is. There has been much talk about what Egyptians have gained over the past 12 eventful months. Well, the one thing we truly gained over this year worth anything is knowledge.
We wake up each day and look around us in the knowledge that there’s no one truly on our side. With few friends far and between, we have only ourselves to rely on. We now have the knowledge that we are betrayed by our police, our judiciary, our legislature, our media, our army, our ministries, our parties and even our religious institutions. It was the spark lit on 25 January and the wildfire that followed which awoke us to the daunting realisation of these long-buried facts.
Never has this systematic treason been put to as much use as it has since Egyptians took to the streets and tried to take back what is rightfully theirs. All institutions were utilised to subdue the will of the Egyptian people. The odds were stacked against us from the very start, more than we could have foreseen. The faces of our institutions have been laid bare and despite our expectations, these faces turned out to be uglier than we could have imagined.
Injustices have been endured by Egyptians in great part through religion but all the more now it has become apparent that the leaders have betrayed the cause of their followers. al-Azhar does not hesitate to issue a ‘fatwa’ (Islamic ruling) if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) so desires. The Coptic Pope does not think twice about singing the false praises of the ruling military junta, the murderers of his flock. The political parties which embrace Islam are ready to do their duty to manipulate the poor through religion and bribes, and defend the well-being and honour of the military, the rapists of our country.
One year on and we’re starting to comprehend what Robert Springborg had said back on 2 February 2011 and Ellis Goldberg knew on 11 February before it had really begun. Springborg said, “The real opposition will initially be ignored, and then possibly rounded up,” and that is pretty much what has been happening. “The game is, thus, more or less over.”
As if prophetic of the way we will be swindled, Goldberg said, “Instead of pursuing institutional change, leading military figures will likely try to satisfy the public with symbolic gestures.”
The mock Mubarak trials, the cosmetic change in government, the elections; all fulfill the prophesy. Instead of moving towards democracy, we are experiencing “the culmination of the slow-motion coup and the return of the somewhat austere military authoritarianism of decades past”.
And what we have now is as Goldberg perfectly summed it up, “Mubarakism without Mubarak.” Nobody wants freedom for this country; those who have power to fix it do not have the will and those who have the will do not have the power.
Egypt is not Tunisia, they once said. It’s true. If Egypt had been Tunisia we would have had more of a chance to of being liberated. State media has propagated the claim that foreign elements are undermining democracy efforts and they are, by supporting the brutal SCAF. Egypt has borders with Israel and that’s why we cannot be free. Egypt‘s military is controlled by United States interests and that’s why we cannot be free.
Years of receiving billions of dollars in military bribes has created a monster of an army that is incapable of fighting anyone but its people. Years of corruption combined with these bribes have given a few men from the army control over 25% to 40% of Egypt’s economy. The army’s activities have shifted from defence-related investments to producing bottled water and pasta – well, at least they can’t run us over with those. We slave away for the murderers; their wealth grows as does the poverty of the people.
Our country is ruled by a military junta. On 25 January they will be celebrating but Egyptians should be mourning. Protesters and revolutionaries will be mourning; they will be mourning their dead.
The SCAF will celebrate a triumph over a very pure and compelling revolution. They will celebrate the release of officers who killed protesters. They will celebrate keeping their corrupt men in their positions. They will celebrate their ability to kill Egyptians almost every month last year without reproach or repercussions. They will celebrate the fact that they are above the law and not one army or police officer was tried properly for their crimes - perhaps this is to ensure that others continue the execution of brutal orders the next time they are given.
They will celebrate their control over the legislative, judiciary and executive bodies, and the press. They will celebrate the powers they will keep even after “handing over” power. They will celebrate taking every decision against the will of the people. They will celebrate the decisions they’ve taken to protect their interests at the expense of Egyptians. They will celebrate their power. They will celebrate their lies.
We will mourn our wounded and our dead whose blood screams from the ground. We will look back at the prospect of having taken down that venomous state television building known as Maspero. We will remember how we were tricked into thinking there was any honour in those dishonourable army men we foolishly trusted. We will mourn the institutions that we trusted and remember how they have sold us out.
The first anniversary of the revolution is not a day for Egyptians to celebrate but to mourn our dead. A day to remember our awakening and a day to remember what we fought for. Perhaps it can also be a day to start fighting once again.
A year has passed and we now know of our enslavement. A year has passed but the streets are full of marches and screenings of army brutality. But over that time I’ve seen many inspiring faces. I’ve seen brave Egyptians calling in the darkest times against their oppressors. I’ve seen valiant protesters walking into danger unarmed. I’ve seen them camped out in the cold in Tahrir and marching in the heat. I remember their faces and I know they have broken free and that for them there is no turning back. I cannot conceive of a way for these determined warriors to be subdued by an oppressive force that wishes them enslaved.
The army is giving Egyptians a stark choice: choose freedom and endure anarchy, or choose stability and put up with us.
Thursday 29 September 2011
Last week, after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reactivated Mubarak’s 2010 extension of the emergency law, it suggested holding a referendum on the reactivation to give its decision a sheen of legitimacy. If the emergency law passes through legal channels, it will allow SCAF to silence its opponents while claiming it has popular support for its actions.
Where once authoritarianism was imposed on Egyptians, Egypt is now facing the risk of “democratically” choosing to be governed autocratically, where the people themselves call for or support authoritarian practices such as military trials, emergency laws, etc.
Since the revolution, Egypt’s de facto military rulers have cracked down on media outlets,allegedly tried 12,000 people before military courts, reactivated Hosni Mubarak’s highly unpopular emergency law , and outlined no clear time frame for the transition to a civilian government – things even Mubarak wouldn’t have dared to do in post-revolution Egypt. But what is perhaps most appalling is that a growing number of people is supportive of this.
After the defeat and withdrawal of police forces from the streets on 28 January, the lack of security and this anarchy-like state have driven many people to express their willingness to trade in their dream of democracy in return for ‘normalcy’ by supporting authoritarian practices in the hope of stopping the country from descending into the absolute state of lawlessness they fear.
As a result, many Egyptian have voted in favour of reactivating Mubarak’s emergency law. On the Masrawy news website, 59% of those who took part in a poll agreed that the emergency law should be reactivated. The figure of an al-Shorouk online poll was nearly half.
There is no doubt that the past seven months since Mubarak’s ouster have been so overwhelming that many are now ready to give up their dream of democracy. The perceived rise in crime and the struggling economy have shifted many people’s priorities to security and stability over human rights and democracy.
The SCAF has capitalised on this fear to boost its popularity – at least in comparison with the former regime. May be some Egyptians are still grateful for the army’s refusal to open fire at protesters, especially when compared to the savagery of other armies in the region, or perhaps people simply see the military as the last line of defence against anarchy. This is why their use of Mubarakist techniques has worked better than it did for the man himself.
Unlike the ousted president, they seem to have successfully managed to draw some public support for them and stoked up opposition against pro-democracy activists. On top of the relative credibility they enjoy, the public support expressed for arbitrary laws is a result of the SCAF’s relatively effective propaganda which links stability to their policies and their way of administering the country, whilst connecting chaos and instability to those who dare to oppose them.
The message the rulers are trying to send is simple: if you want freedom you have to endure prospects of a wide-scale war with Israel, looting and thuggery, a collapsing tourism industry, a struggling economy, and a security vacuum. If you want stability, all you have to endure is us.
The SCAF has tried relentlessly to link chaos and mayhem to human rights and political activism by accusing many key players in the revolution, such as the 6 April Youth Movement and the Kifaya (Enough) coalition, of trying to destabilise the country and serving foreign agendas.
Despite being accustomed to working under an authoritarian regime,and the smear campaigns and the heavy-handed security that come with the territory, rights activists now also need to grow accustomed to working under popular “dissuport”.
Political and rights activists are now slowly losing their status as “heroes” and are gradually being cast as the “villains” instead of the regime. Opposing Mubarak’s dictatorship was seen as a heroic act. Opposing SCAF is being seen by a growing number of Egyptians as a form of “treachery”.
Intensive propaganda has associated human rights, in the minds of many, with vandalism, chaos, instability and conspiracy. The main danger to democracy that Egypt is facing is not the practices of the military rulers, but the public support for such practices.
The SCAF should not be deceived or lulled into a false sense of security by this support, which is probably going to be short-lived and is only a result of the horrors of recent months.
Once the memory of the chaos becomes distant enough and the revolutionary dust settles, people will again start realising the government’s failure to deliver better living conditions, to enhance the rule of law, to fight corruption and to push for greater civil liberties.
Rulers with a security-only mentality who fail to address economic, legal and social issues run the risk of sharing Mubarak’s destiny or even worse, because next time people will make sure not to go home with an unfinished revolution or trust anyone but themselves to take charge of the transitional period.
Employing tired, old narratives and displaying a severe lack of political imagination, which is a typical characteristic of military rulers, would only serve to remind Egyptians of the old regime they despised for long undermining the power, energy and creativity of the people.
Civil rights and genuine stability can only come together, and the Egyptian revolution proved that the heavy hand of security can no longer achieve stability on its own.
Soon enough, those Egyptians who believe that military strongmen are more capable of maintaining public order than democratically elected civilian governments will discover that this idea is nothing short of a myth. What we have is not really a choice between freedom and stability, but a choice between having both or neither.