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.
Despite their marginalisation or disenfranchisement in Israeli politics, Palestinians can use Israel’s democratic tools to their advantage.
Thursday 31 January 2013
The expected massive swing further to the right in Israel did not materialise, with, according to some estimates, an even 60-60 split of seats in the Knesset between the “left” and “right”. Although incumbent prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not quite out, he is definitely down – and there exists the theoretical, though unlikely, scenario that he might not retain his position as prime minister if the famously fractured centre and left join forces.
Meanwhile, the new kingmaker, though probably not the king, is not, as many had forecasted, Naftali Bennett or the ultra-nationalist and religious right, or at least not them alone, but the compulsively centrist Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which came in second, with an estimated 19 seats.
This gain for the centre, if not exactly the left, has enabled many secular and progressive Israelis to breathe a sigh of relief, though not necessarily to breathe more easily. “The Knesset as a whole looks like it will be significantly more moderate as a whole than after the last elections,” said on Israeli friend, Rifka, expressing a certain cautious optimism.
In fact, many on the Israeli left feel little elation, and some are gripped by a sense of deflation. “The public of floating voters went for the middle-class chauvinist TV presenter with good hair and mood music and the charming high-tech guy who calls them ‘achi’ (‘brother’),” believes Udi, a young British-Israeli. “This is a victory for banal, naïve, escapist anti-politics.”
And Yair Lapid, nicknamed Tofu Man by one commentator, is perhaps the greatest example of this escapist anti-politics. He is an actor, a journalist and a TV presenter. But when it comes to politics – he is a political novice and lightweight. He seems to have gained so many votes partly through his superficial charm and the fact that he is a household name, and partly by maintaining an almost pathological silence on the political issues dividing left and right during his campaign.
Another area of major escapism in Israeli politics relates to the Palestinian question – and the occupation hardly featured as an election issue, not even as a minor preoccupation, except perhaps with the religious and revisionist rights’ unapologetic determination to further extend and entrench the Israeli settlement enterprise and even to annex large swathes of the West Bank.
“It was a surprise to everyone that the centre and centre-left have revitalised themselves, but when it comes to Palestinians, no one is jumping with joy,” admitted veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi in an article, expressing a widespread sentiment among Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Faced as they are with an apparently unending occupation and its attendant machinations – walls, checkpoints, martial law, ever-growing settlements, the absence of sovereignty and self-determination – and the indignity this produces, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have little to no faith in the Israeli electoral process.
However, the lack of enthusiasm stretches across the Green Line to Palestinians living in Israel who, at least theoretically, enjoy equal citizenship and have the right to vote. They are frustrated by how the Israeli political establishment at best ignores them and at worst passes legislation that actively discriminates against them, despite the political leverage their votes should afford them.
In addition, even though they are generally better off materially than Palestinians living under occupation and enjoy greater freedom than Arabs living under autocratic regimes, they are nonetheless marginalised and stigmatised socially and economically. As one resident of Umm al-Fahm explained: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”
This translated into widespread apathy – and a certain measure of active boycotting – towards the recent vote, with pre-election surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters would cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. At the time of press, it was unclear what the actual voter turnout among Palestinian-Israelis was, though indications were that it would be far lower than the nearly 70% national average, despite the efforts of Arab parties, politicians, community activists and even the Arab League to bring out the vote.
One young Palestinian who had not intended to vote changed her mind at the last minute when she got wind of how low voter turnout in her community was. “I got nervous and upset. I grabbed everyone I know who didn’t vote and drove them [to the polling station],” she admitted.
In total, Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish parties together managed to secure an estimated 12 seats in the Knesset: United Arab List (5), Hadash (4) and Balad (3). Some lament the low voter turnout as a missed opportunity.
“Let’s assume they had voted in large numbers and managed to get 20 seat, which is feasible, then the Arab parties would have had the power to impose their opinion,” believes Hamodie Abonadda, a television producer and Hadash voter. Abonadda speculates that armed with that many seats, the Arab parties would have become impossible to ignore (as Lapid has insisted he will do) by the left and could have made it, for the first time in Israeli history, into a ruling Israeli coalition.
It is my conviction that the political leverage of Palestinians in the Israeli system could be multiplied significantly if the 300,000 or so Palestinian Jerusalemites joined the fray and decided to claim their right to vote.
However, this would involve them applying for Israeli citizenship, which many oppose because it would, they fear, give legitimacy to Israel’s decision to annex Jerusalem. In fact, in the clash between ideology and pragmatism, even participating in municipal elections, which Jerusalem residents are allowed to do without becoming citizens, is still regarded as an unacceptable form of “normalisation”, as I have heard from numerous activists.
“For too long… there has been this taboo on voting for the municipal elections because if one does vote then he/she is seen as a ‘traitor’,” explains Apo Sahagian, an Armenian-Palestinian musician and writer from the old city of Jerusalem. “But this mentality has only worked to the Palestinians’ disadvantage… For example, the approval given to settlement construction starts on the municipal level. If there is enough opposition at that initial level, then that settlement enterprise can be stopped or interrupted.”
Though Sahagian believes that only “raw pragmatism” will save the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and equality, he opposes the idea of Palestinians in Jerusalem applying for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “in a different reality” the combined vote of Jerusalemite Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis would “shake the political landscape of Israel”.
And “raw pragmatism” is guiding a growing number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, as attested to by the plethora of posters advertising language courses, and even to apply for Israeli citizenship, which they see, in light of the vulnerable status of the permanent residence cards that can be taken away fairly easily, as a way of guaranteeing their presence in their beloved city, and hence preserving what remains of its Palestinian character. “What is the difference between having an Israeli ID and an Israeli passport? They’re both Israeli documents, but one gives you rights, the other does not,” one young Jerusalemite who had recently acquired citizenship confessed to me.
There are Jerusalemites I know who argue that the potential combined political clout of Palestinians in Israel and in Jerusalem could also help ease the suffering of their kin in the West Bank and Gaza.
Despite the fact that this emerging trend has sparked controversy, even within individual families, many Palestinians who are moving down this path are doing so out of principle, not just pragmatism, seeing it as an important step along the road to a single, democratic, bi-national, Arab-Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.
A friend and neighbour from Jerusalem, with whom I spent long hours dreaming of a better future, expresses this reality succinctly: “There will not be two states. There is already only one state. All the people of this one state should be represented at the ballot box.”
With Israel expected to elect its most right-wing government ever, what can progressive Arab and Jewish voters do to challenge the status quo?
Tuesday 22 January 2013
Polls predict that Israel’s ultra-nationalist and religious right will walk away with Tuesday’s elections, and that the subsequent coalition may well be even further to the right than the current one.
A dispassionate perusal of Israel’s situation would reveal the urgent and desperate need to narrow and bridge the growing gap in Israel between the have-loads and the have-nots and to build bridges across the enormous chasm separating Israelis from Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories.
Yet the right seems bent on widening these splits with its hardcore nationalistic discourse, the casual racism of many of its leaders and its determination to further entrench and broaden the settlement enterprise.
It is distressing and depressing to witness Israel’s continued drift to the right. This is reflected in how parties which were once considered rightwing are now regarded as centrist and in how quickly the “loony” fringe parties become mainstream, as embodied in the meteoric rise of HaBayit HaYehudi’s Naftali Bennett and in how Avigdor Lieberman, who once famously called for the bombing of Egypt’s high dam and the drowning of Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea, managed to become Israel’s face to the outside world.
The hardening of the right, mixed with the weakness and disarray of the left, has resulted in massive disillusionment and alienation in the ranks of Palestinian-Israelis and, albeit to a lesser extent, among progressive Israeli Jews, many of whom have “defected” rightwards.
This has translated into widespread apathy towards Tuesday’s vote, with surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters will cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. Expressing a widespread sentiment in his community, one voter from Umm al-Fahm explained the reasons for his abstention: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”
Even many of the politically aware and young who are as comfortable, sometimes more so, in Hebrew as in Arabic, feel there is nothing left to vote for.
“I don’t believe I will be voting in these upcoming elections,” admits Mimas Abdel-Hay, a student of government at a private Israeli institution, despite having recently become a political representative for a new party called Hope for Change. “Although this might show weakness or indecisiveness, I never felt like I had a say.”
Faced with such a bleak political landscape, is there anything progressive Arabs and Jews in Israel can do to challenge or protest against the status quo?
Rather than simply abstaining as individuals from voting, some Palestinians in Israel have actively called for a collective boycott of the vote.
But whether it is understandable disillusionment at their growing marginalisation or principle that keeps Arab voters away, I personally believe the only thing worse than participating in this unrepresentative electoral fight is not participating.
While mainstream Israeli parties are largely ignoring the Arab electorate, Arab politicians, as well as the joint Jewish-Arab Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), have been working to convince sceptical voters to turn out on Tuesday and make their voices count.
“In South Africa, people were killed struggling to have one person, one vote. In Israel, there is discrimination in every part of life… In only one thing there is equal rights: the day of the election,” Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List said in an interview.
“A boycott now is an act of weakness, not an act of active struggle. We would be out of politics,” asserts Haneen Zoabi of the Balad party, the first woman to represent an Arab party in the Knesset, despite having experienced efforts to disqualify her from the current elections.
Although television producer Hamodie Abonadda will not be voting for Balad but rather Hadash, his assessment of the consequences of staying away from the elections is similar to Zoabi’s. “Not voting is a very harsh statement one makes when living in an environment of equality,” he maintains.
Abonadda describes Palestinians in Israel as being victims twice over: of exclusion by the Israeli political establishment and then of being blamed for the apathy and indifference this engenders. “This has made the victim guilty of being a victim… The 1948 Arabs must stop being the victim and rise up and change the Israeli reality with their votes,” he urges.
But this raises the tricky issue of who to vote for. Like progressive Jews, many Arabs in Israel feel poorly represented by the parties that speak in their name. While many Arab politicians focus their attention on nationalistic questions and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a survey by Haifa University found that 57% of Palestinian-Israeli voters were most concerned with “bread and butter” issues, such as welfare, discrimination and rising crime, while only 8% cited the conflict.
Some also describe discourse as a challenge. “The problem I have is with the way the Arab politicians reach out to the Israeli public. They never speak in a way the Israelis can relate to or understand,” believes Mimas Abdel-Hay. “We are a minority, and in order to be heard, we have to play this game wisely,” she suggests.
“Playing the game wisely” should involve finding common cause with likeminded Israeli Jews as part of a broader struggle for greater socio-economic equality between not only Jews and Arabs, but also within Jewish society itself.
One politician out to do just that is Asma Agbarieh, leader of the socialist, Arab-Jewish Da’am party, who is the first Arab woman to head a party in Israel and has been enthusiastically heralded by some as the “new hope” for the Israeli left.
Her vision? “To talk about Jews and Arabs, about socialism, social justice. They thought I was dreaming, that all Arabs hate Jews and all Jews hate Arabs. And I know that’s not true. At a certain point, because reality is crushing you, because it empties your pockets and kills your children, you start to think,” Agbarieh told Haaretz in an interview.
And, although Da’am attracted less than 3,000 votes in 2009, Agbarieh’s message is finding resonance and has caused a surprisingly large number of people to “start to think”.
“I’m pretty captivated by her and her charismatic activities and ideas,” confesses Harvey Stein, an Israeli-American filmmaker based in Jerusalem. “I think Jews and Arabs must come together to fight those things – the question is, how can this feeling that me and a small group of people are feeling become popular enough to be politically meaningful?”
For Stein, the litmus test will be whether Da’am can gain enough votes to cross the electoral threshold and win even one seat in the Knesset. Up until recently, this seemed like a big ask, but the ground seems to be slowly shifting in Agbarieh’s favour.
But even if Da’am does win a seat in the Knesset, what difference will that make, some may rightfully ask?
In my view, a small victory like this will have enormous symbolic significance: for the first time, a Palestinian woman will be leading an elected Israeli party on a joint Jewish-Arab platform.
This, along with other joint action, could help improve the socio-economic situation of the marginalised in Israeli society, whether Arab or Jewish, especially if Jerusalemite Palestinians overcome their reservations and also start demanding their right to vote. It could also slowly redefine the conflict and pave the way to its eventual resolution from the grassroots up.
As the fog of war distort people’s vision and compassion, can Israeli and Palestinian reject the strategy of violence offered by their leaderships?
Wednesday 21 November 2012
Just days before the current escalation in violence, I encountered a young Gazan art student living “illegally” in the West Bank because Israel would not allow her to change her address.
With her precarious existence as a kind of fugitive in her own land, which had made her unable to visit her besieged hometown for over seven years, and in light of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its 2008-9 invasion, I asked her how she felt about Israelis.
“I am a human and believe in humanity, regardless of religion, nationality or race. We are all humans. I will not let this affect me,” the art student said, surprising me with the simple intensity of her conviction, as her Jewish-American friend listened in, even though she did not understand a word of what we were saying.
As I watch with rising alarm the fog of imminent war distort people’s vision and compassion, I cannot help but recall this conversation. I wonder whether this young woman is managing to cling on to her admirable compassion and humility, when those around her are losing theirs, or has it too fallen victim to this senseless confrontation?
The first victim of war, it is rightly said, is truth, but its second casualty is humanity. The demonisation, hatred, vitriol and jingoism that has been fired indiscriminately and disproportionately in recent days has been troubling. Personally, though I have felt fury at Israel’s vicious “send Gaza back to the middle ages” military offensive against a captive civilian population – not to mention anger with Palestinian militants for also targeting civilians – I am determined not to allow this to darken my view of ordinary Israelis.
This latest conflagration confounded me but it did not surprise me.
It did not surprise me because we have been here before – in 2006 in Lebanon and 2008-9 in Gaza, to name just two examples, when the Cain of senselessness murdered the Abel of sensibility. The timing was also no big surprise. The smokescreen of military confrontation is a powerful political ploy because it can turn political villains into heroes and discontented citizens into loyal soldiers, silencing growing dissent in the ranks – although it can backfire or blow up in its user’s hands, as discovered by Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Olmert in 2009.
Although this brewing war is ostensibly about the security of Israel, it is, in reality, more about the insecurity of the Israeli government at the ballot box, faced as it has been with growing social unrest, economic dissatisfaction, widening inequality and increasing public fury at the fiscal black hole opened up by settlement subsidies. How else can we explain Israel’s infuriating decision to murder its “subcontractor” in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, who was, reportedly, on the verge of sealing a permanent truce with Israel?
On the other side of the fence, Hamas has been facing growing popular discontent – with a recent poll suggesting that it would receive just 31% of the popular vote in Gaza, and considerably less in the West Bank, if suspended elections were held – particularly since the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’, and especially amongst young people. Although it was elected for its apparent lack of corruption and cronyism, now that Hamas is the uncontested master of Gaza, it has been guilty of severe abuses of power and human rights violations. Hamas is also far less tolerant of dissent than Fatah.
Though the current fighting does not surprise me, it does confound me. It confounds me because if Israeli and Gazan leaders are truly sincere in their claims that they seek to defend their people, then why have they not yet recognised that attack is the worst form of defence, at least in this conflict?
What have Israel’s many long campaigns of violence against Hamas achieved? The previous Gaza war did not accomplish its intended objective of destroying Hamas, nor did it halt the flow of rockets into Israel. All it succeeded in doing was to increase the quotient of human misery in Gaza, and with it the measure of hostility and distrust towards Israel among Palestinians and Arabs. This current campaign is about restoring “deterrence”, we’re told, but the greatest deterrent effect it is likely to have is to deter even more of the world from viewing Israel with sympathy or compassion.
More broadly, Israel’s other attempts to destroy Hamas by other means have backfired spectacularly, and though they may serve the interests of extremists, they do little to enhance the security and well-being of ordinary Israelis.
Take the blockade on Gaza. While it has been very effective at increasing the destitution and despair of the average Gazan, it has done very little to weaken Hamas’s hold on power. In fact, tightening the screws on the Strip has led us from a situation in which Hamas had to share power with Fatah – and signal its willingness, now that it was actually in power, to act more pragmatically – to one in which the Islamist movement became the only show in town in Gaza and its position has re-hardened.
Hamas’s violence has also paid precious few dividends to the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people in general. Though some see Hamas’s behaviour as a heroic form of resistance against the humiliation and oppression of occupation, what good has this supposed heroism done Gazans or the Palestinian cause? Ever since Hamas tacitly joined forces with extremists Israelis to assassinate the (admittedly flawed) peace process, Israel has seen to it that the situation of Gazans has deteriorated immensely.
That is not to say that resistance is futile. On the contrary, if Palestinians are to secure their human rights, resistance is necessary. But in a situation where they are by far the weaker party militarily, they will never be able to match Israeli firepower, so they need to unleash the most potent weapon in their arsenal: peaceful people power, which is more suited to the political nature of the conflict.
The relative potency of this weapon can be seen when you compare the peaceful first intifada with the violent second intifada: the first uprising effectively brought Israel to its knees, while the second brought the Palestinians to theirs. And since the second intifada died down Palestinian peace activists have been rediscovering and reasserting the power of non-violent resistance.
While non-violence has received a lot of attention in the Palestinian context, when it comes to Israelis, it has received precious little. This is reflected in the fact that while most Israelis agree, and urge, the Palestinians to abandon violence, they cling on to the right to use it themselves, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the previous Gaza war among the Israel public.
But the rejection of violence is as important a creed for Israelis as it is for Palestinians, even if they are militarily the more powerful. In this asymmetric conflict, there can be no winners because the more Israel destroys, the more it bolsters Palestinian determination to resist and the more it isolates itself internationally. More importantly, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultimately political, and not military, it cannot and will not be decided on the battlefield, no matter how long the hawks deny this basic law of nature.
Recognising this important truth, a resident of a kibbutz near the border with Gaza urged the Israeli government, despite the rockets which have landed in her backyard: “If you want to defend me… try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney.”
In my view, the best way to defend the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is through a complete rejection by the public of violence, not only that committed by the other side, which is easy, but also, more significantly, that perpetrated by your own. Once the cycle of violence is broken for long enough, the two sides can gradually shift from resistance of the other to coexistence with one another.
The Belgian magazine Knack did something shocking, brilliant, or lazy… depending on how you look at it.
Thursday 4 October 2012
The Flemish-language weekly has published a Q&A with Bart De Wever, a Flemish politician and popular TV personality, thanks to his successful run on the quiz show De Slimste Mens Ter Wereld (The World’s Smartest Person), and more recently for his amazing transformation from chubby leader of the Flemish nationalist NV-A party to slim Antwerp mayoral candidate in next week’s elections. Oh, and he just published a book about his miraculous diet.
Magazines interview celebrities, politicians, actors, etc. because people want to hear what they have to say. There is nothing outlandish about that. But on this occasion Knack ran a cover story promoting an interview that never happened!
In a short introduction to the story, the editors explain that De Wever was asked a couple of times to answer some questions but was just too busy – or, as implied, ‘too important’ – to find the time. So, the publication was probably faced with a rotten choice. Ditch the cover story, then scramble to adjust the flat plan (the content structure), find a replacement story, and may be even adjust the advertising line-up. In a weekly magazine, that would be a nightmare scenario.
Or do what Knack clearly decided to do … run the story anyway. Run with what? You rightly ask. They published the article with a full-page photo of the new-look De Wever in his freshly tailored pin-striped suit, followed by a spread with the Q&A in the usual format Knack: Blah blah followed by De Wever: Blah blah. Except in place of De Wever’s responses, they wrote ‘No answer’ or something to that effect. It’s a gimmick, sure, but a brilliant one if you think about it. They got to keep their cover story, reinforce their reputation as an edgy political publication and … well … take the piss out of De Wever for being too arrogant, it would seem, to answer their journalist’s requests for an interview.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. The way it was presented made it seem like he chose not to answer, which in media terms always smells of hiding something. Public relations experts insist that spokespeople never say ‘no answer’ or ‘no comment’ for that reason. Whether De Wever actively chose not to answer or just genuinely didn’t have the time or interest to appear in Knack for the nth time is, of course, irrelevant because the result is the same.
The fallout from the story, including resignations at the magazine and political intrigue, runs in concentric circles. Observers of the Flemish media told me that the journalist seemed to be just trying to make a name for himself with this trick, that a good journalist would have tried harder to reach De Wever or his people. There is an election going on, after all, and De Wever is busy promoting his book to boot. Others wonder how any politician would pass up a potential cover story in a major weekly (with a print run of around 130,000 copies), let alone one who has shown in the past to have a strong nose for publicity.
Alternatively, it could all simply have been a mix up, a classic communications breakdown. This is the way NV-A would want the incident to be remembered. The party posted what the answers to Knack’s questions would have been had they been given more time to reply – to show they had nothing to hide, presumably.
Is this incident a shocking piece of PR, lazy journalism, or a brilliant stunt which shows that the print media is not going to give in to the digital upstarts without a fight? You be the judge.
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.
Egypt’s next president is likely to be against the revolution, so revolutionaries must forge a viable opposition and push for social and economic change.
Friday 15 June 2012
The culmination of the race for the Egyptian presidency should be a proud moment for Egypt, yet paradoxically the country’s nascent democratic process has delivered an apparently anti-democratic outcome.
Although Egyptians are finally getting the unprecedented opportunity to pick their next leader, voters now have the unenviable dilemma of choosing between an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal military man (Ahmed Shafiq) and a counterrevolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist (Mohamed Mursi).
This has left revolutionaries and supporters of the revolution in a double bind: participate and effectively vote against the revolution or boycott the elections and potentially undermine the democratic process you have been advocating.
Like Odysseus, Egypt’s revolutionaries have to find a way to navigate, without shipwrecking the revolution, between the multi-headed Scylla that symbolises the remnants of the Mubarak regime and the mysterious and treacherous depths of the whirlpool-inducing Charybdis of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One way of circumnavigating these two perils is to boycott the runoff elections, as many activists and some of the defeated candidates have been urging, in order to show that neither Mursi nor Shafiq enjoy a real mandate. As one protester on Tahrir Square put it, “It does not make sense to choose between two wrongs.”
One effective and creative way of doing this would be to turn up at the voting stations anyway and cast a spoilt ballot – say by writing “Mickey Mouse for president” on their ballot paper. If the number of invalid, or Mickey Mouse, votes outnumber those for Shafiq and Mursi, this would be a powerful message to Egypt’s future president that a Disney character enjoys more support than him.
While people have the right not to vote, such a course of action does involve certain risks. First and foremost, it enables opponents of the revolution to continue the long smear campaign against Egypt’s revolutionaries by suggesting that the boycott is undemocratic and motivated not by principle but by spite.
Pointing to the abuses committed during the transitional period, the unclear powers of the next president and the murky backstage role the junta will play once it officially hands over power, many revolutionaries have become so disillusioned that they plan to shun the entire political process and continue their struggle on the streets.
But this would be a grave error. While there will be a need for the protest-oriented ‘democracy of Tahrir’ for many years to come, the revolution should continue by all means possible – and that includes becoming part of the political process, imperfect as it may be.
Although the generals loaded the dice against the revolutionaries from the start, that was not the only reason behind their poor showing in both the parliamentary and presidential races. The low turnout, of around 47%, for the unique spectacle of 13 men vying for Egypt’s hitherto unavailable top job was effectively a vote of little-to-no confidence in all the candidates.
This failure to inspire is partly a result of the absence of inspiring leaders in the new electoral political brought about by decades of repressive rule, but it is also due to the disarray and fragmentation of the revolutionary movement.
For example, on Tuesday, I read that the 6 April Youth Movement, one of the main driving forces behind the revolution, was backing Mursi’s candidacy after the Islamist candidate had signed on to a ‘National Consensus Document’ and promised to appoint a vice-president who was not connected to the Brotherhood.
The very next day, I read that 6 April was calling for a boycott of the presidential election. Had the young revolutionaries changed their mind so quickly or was this some mistake? Neither, as it turns out. The first announcement was made by the so-called ‘Ahmed Maher Front’, led by one of the group’s co-founders, while the second was released by a splinter group known as the ‘Democratic Front’.
Instead of this infighting and political intrigue, Egypt’s progressive, secular revolutionary forces need to find a way to consolidate themselves and forge a viable opposition to the well-organised and disciplined Islamists over the coming four years if they are to stand a chance at the next election.
In addition, the Egyptian revolution is not just a political one, but is also social, cultural and economic. This is recognised in the revolutionary slogan of ‘bread, freedom and social justice’, but has not been acted upon sufficiently, except rather sporadically at the local level, mainly by workers and trade unions.
If more ordinary Egyptians are to be won over to the cause of the revolution, they need to be persuaded that there is something in it for them, that it can deliver them social and economic justice. Beyond this, creating a secular, liberal, tolerant and egalitarian society requires the removal of ignorance through decent education, and the combating of corruption, nepotism, patronage and the authoritarianism that bedevils Egyptian society not just at the top of the pyramid, but at almost every stratum.
Part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s success can be traced back to more than 80 years of nationwide grassroots social and cultural activism and charitable work. Secularists can learn, and are learning, a lot from the Brotherhood about instigating change from the bottom, up. Egypt does not just need revolution, it also need gradual evolution.
Note: Since this article was written, the Supreme Constitutional Court has dissolved the Egyptian parliament, which has been described by some as a “military coup” and raises worrying questions about exactly how much power the generals truly intend to hand over and whether this ill-conceived decision could spiral out of control and lead to instability and bloodshed. This verdict appears to be politically motivated, which not only undermines the Egyptian judiciaries hard-earned credibility but is also bound to boost the Islamists’ flagging popularity by transforming them into martyrs of political injustice.
This is an extended version of an article which appeared in The Nationalon 15 June 2012.
With little representation in official politics, Egypt’s revolutionary forces must continue to create a political third way on the streets.
Friday 1 June 2012
Following the announcement of the official results of the Egyptian presidential elections on Monday, Tahrir square, the epicentre and the unofficial headquarters of the revolution, drew thousands of protesters who expressed their dissatisfaction that Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, would face each other in the final round. Many felt the outcome was predecided to give voters a choice between bad and worse.
The chants against both the military and the Brotherhood demonstrate that many Egyptians are not happy with the choice they have been left with. After all, the majority of Egyptians voted for candidates other than Morsi and Shafiq.
This regime-Brotherhood dichotomy has a relatively long history in Egypt. The overthrown president Hosni Mubarak mastered playing this card to help him stay in power for almost three decades. He demonised the Brotherhood while giving them some power to qualify them as a tangible threat. The state media machine cast them in the role of Egypt’s political bogeyman while portraying the regime as the stable status quo.
Mubarak played the demon Brotherhood card until the last day of his rule. In his last interview with ABC’s Christiana Amanpour a few days before he was forced to step down, he warned omniously that if he left office the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.
This ornamental bipartisanship benefited both parties and they both have vested interests in maintaining this favourable status quo. This was evident and clear in their statements about the post-election protests against the results. They both described the protesters as pro-Hamdeen Sabahi (the candidate who came in third). Though there were protesters who had voted for Sabahi, I can tell you, as an eyewitness to the demonstration, that the protest had very little to do with the man himself, but casting it in this light gives the impression that the protesters are nothing more than a bunch of sore losers who have no genuine grievances.
Maintaining this regime-Brotherhood dichotomy is harmful. It stagnates Egypt’s political life and hinders progress, while promoting the politics of fear. It also establishes a tradition of tactical voting “against” rather than “for”, with each side trying to convince the voter that they are the lesser evil.
This framework of politics puts very little pressure on the parties to deliver any actual results. In fact, both the regime and the Brotherhood presented no vision for ending the political deadlock and economic meltdown the country is experiencing.
In addition, the majority of Egyptians have expressed their rejection of this tired political formula, through both street politics and the ballot box. The problem is that the revolutionary votes were divided due to the lack of coordination and the lack of political and electoral experience. Despite all this, candidates who clearly represented the revolution won more then 40% of the votes.
Since this massive voting bloc has very little representation in official politics, it is left with no choice but to try to influence decision-making through street politics, lobbying and forming coalition. Eventually, it will evolve into some form of organised political force that can present a third choice and break the regime-Brotherhood dichotomy once and for all. Until this happens, people who are not happy with the choice they have in the run-off should boycott the elections. A very low turnout will embarrass the regime, take away some legitimacy from the next president and put more pressure on him to compromise. It will also encourage a new political force to emerge to win and represent this forsaken voting bloc.
Hope for an egalitarian society lies with pressure the revolution can exert from the grassroots, and its ability to consolidate and institutionalise in the near future. The revolution’s principles of “bread, freedom and social justice” could constitute a viable third way in Egyptian politics and provide a counterbalance to the disastrous and divisive rightwing politics of the Islamists and the military-backed secular regime.
Should a young radical seize his last chance to vote for a president or is the true struggle for radical change in Egypt on the streets?
Thursday 24 May 2012
There are two reasons I didn’t vote yesterday. One is that polling extends over two days and I’m a natural procrastinator. The second is that I’m not sure if I will vote or not and I have put off this decision until the last minute. I do not have any particular moral qualms about voting in an election that many perceive is undermined by the very fact that it is being held under the administration and oversight of the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – electoral mechanisms within established constitutional democracies are, for me, already a significant moral compromise.
A perfect electoral process is not the perfect culmination of revolution anyway and it is definitely not the best example of self-governance. Since I do not really believe in it, my participation is not contingent on whether it is perfect or compromised. I have voted before, the first time was in the parliamentary elections in 2010, although back then it was a completely different farce. I considered my ballot an act of petty resistance, for some reason, and voted to make the task of rigging slightly more annoying. I knew my vote wouldn’t count anyway (it didn’t at all, the ruling NDP decided to go for blatant rather than moderate rigging). Back then things were also pretty black and white, and there were limited channels for political expression.
Now the situation has been reversed, and the only way the regime can save itself is through democratic politics. Voting is not just symbolic anymore. It can actually mean something, and what the military junta wants it to mean is the establishment of the rule of legitimate political institutions which would in turn — or so they think — bring an end to the incredibly fluid and chaotic political landscape that has existed over the past 18months.
This is what concerns me more than the possibility of rigging. Although there is more than one way for the ruling military junta and the state bureaucratic machine — which sometimes seems like it has taken on a life of its own and is making its own decisions — to interfere with the voting process, the chance that such interference will alter the results of the elections significantly or even marginally is, in my point of view, doubtful. Sure, some dead people will still cast their ballots, and some government institutions will forcibly mobilise their workers to vote for specific candidates, but the possibility of rigging will at best be a secondary factor in determining the outcome.
The election process is tightly controlled and widely observed, participation is relatively high, and generally speaking I do not buy into the myth that the military is actually fully in control of everything, or that the outcome whatever it may be will perfectly suit them. Despite the impression one might get from the images of the army’s armoured personnel carriers running protesters over in the heart of the city, this is a much weaker police state than it used to be, and significantly more disorganised and dysfunctional. The transitional period has been characterised by sheer survivalist brutality. The parliament might pass a law (it just did, in the preliminary voting round) which increases penalties against property crime — but people will still commit these crimes on a daily basis. The crime, in this case, being re-appropriating land that is owned by the state and is not being used or has been allocated to private sector investment projects.
The state is trying to restore its ability to look fearsome, in a desperate attempt to stop the rapid erosion of its authority. SCAF and its cronies still obviously control most of the country’s economy, but their methods of enforcing their control on the streets are becoming less and less effective every day.
This corrosion in their effectiveness and authority has led the laws and their enforcing agencies to become more brutal, diminishing their legitimacy further. A democratically elected president and parliament that are still controllable to some extent is thus the regime’s last ditch effort to restore some sort of respect to the state apparatus.
I also voted in the 2011 parliamentary elections, but then I did have moral qualms, and I was extremely emotional. We had just emerged from a week of violent confrontations with the army and the police, that forced the army to reconsider its plan for a slow transition stretched over three years that keeps everything intact. One particular image, of the body of one of our martyrs being dragged by a soldier and then dumped into an impromptu garbage dump on the corner of Tahrir Street shortly after it was temporarily taken over by the military, was still fresh in my mind (and I look at it every once in a while to keep the memory fresh). I thought it would be very cynical to vote in a supposedly democratic election just a few days after this incident, and that maybe it was time to turn the tables and accept nothing of this faux political transition. Ultimately, I controlled my rage and decided at the last minute — to be precise five minutes before polling stations were about to close — to vote anyway. I have partly regretted my decision.
I will never get over this issue, that inner struggle between voting and not voting. I don’t call it boycotting because my problem is a fundamental problem with electoral politics and with social democracy. My problem is that I do actually believe that Egypt needs conflict at the moment, and that a conservative democracy — at best some distorted, rhetorical version of a social democracy, if one can be so ambitious — is just a way of harmonising a conflict of interest that is very real.
Different shades of conservative, representative democracy are still able to sustain their dominance, despite several historical blows. And the question of whether to tactically take part in it or whether, by doing so, we’re missing out on other opportunities of fundamentally changing the system (not to speak about overthrowing it), of making it more radical and more participatory and more just — is a question we will never be able to answer. But what I do know, at the very least, is that a complete overhaul of the social and economic order in Egypt is not something any of the different political forces are interested in achieving.
It suddenly became clear to me, after the revolution took off, that Egyptian apathy towards electoral politics does not stem from ignorance or passiveness. It is actually an active political stance because none of the political alternatives will deliver the needed structural change. There is no immediate solution to this conundrum.
We will go through this transition anyway, whether we like it or not. The radicalisation of politics at the grassroots level is also happening anyway, whether politicians like it or not, and it will not be curtailed by whatever is taking place in the upper echelons of politics. The state will be able to exercise varying degrees of control on the political centre. It will deploy the army in heavy numbers in the port cities, industrial towns and in the countryside to crack down on the exploding number of labour strikes, blockaded streets and railways and government buildings coming under assault, the semi-daily affair of confrontations between local communities and the police over land issues or fuel shortages.
This is where the politics of livelihood dominates and where the state is becoming the weakest player. This is a victory that is hard won and that is much more promising than the establishment of a liberal Western-style democracy with all its inherent limitations. Our active participation in top-level politics level may make it more conducive to this state of fragmented, localised revolution, or it may not. I cannot tell.
If I take part in this electoral battle, it will be with a completely different objective than electing a candidate who represents me. This electoral contest is actually an attempt to reset politics in Egypt (bringing it to a “normal condition”, if I may borrow from computing terminology). We don’t actually have a real political landscape — left-wing and right-wing politics in Egypt today are nothing more than masturbatory exercises in newspapers and academic journals. We are still bogged down in the Islamists versus secularists politics (or rather, non-Islamists, to be precise), and in a very superficial manner — there is very little debate about actual rights.
My fluctuating interest in this electoral contest stems from the fact that it may have the ability to establish a system where issues of social and economic justice, of rights and services, may become a subject of interest to politicians. For that reason, I may vote for someone who has a chance of winning, a rather pragmatic choice, and who is likely to move us past the religious versus non-religious dichotomy. I do not expect him to deliver — I expect him to be busy fighting battles over executive power on several fronts, and I genuinely believe that the current elections will not change anything on the ground. But at least bringing such discussions into the realm of institutional politics can play a complementary role to the battle for rights which continues to be fought by the grassroots. The government will continue to be my arch-enemy, but an enemy with different ambitions from the previous enemy and whom I can engage in a different manner.
I believe that, regionally and globally, we’re living through one of those moments in history where the possibility of radical, revolutionary change — for something so much more than just changing governments and shuffling politicians — is high, and I also believe it’s going to be a long and drawn-out struggle.
For me, the burning question is: can I take part in an electoral process that, deep inside, I have little respect for and that supports state institutions that I will be working hard to cut down to size? Can I both participate in the process and oppose its outcome? Or are they inevitably contradictory courses?
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.