One year on: Gaza, life with hard labour

 
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By Khaled Diab

With rubble Gaza’s only growth industry, people are unable to pick up the pieces of their broken lives, face psychological ruin and dream of escape.

Gaza's rubble rousers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza’s rubble rousers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 10 July 2015

You can call them rubble rousers. Unlike the iconic image of Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, these destitute men have found a new calling: navigating the many ruins of Gaza created by last summer’s war. With heavy hammers and pick axes, they smash away the concrete from around the steel rods, which are too valuable for the owners to allow these rummagers to take.

A train of horse- and donkey-drawn carriages makes its way to an industrial crusher that recycles Gaza’s rubble into gravel which can be used in repair and reconstruction work. Although a small cartload of concrete fetches only $2 and a collector can expect to net $5-6 for an 11-hour day after deducting food for his animal, there is no shortage of people “willing” to undertake this backbreaking labour.

A destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

A destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the World Bank reporting that Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world, reaching a whopping 60% among youth, not to mention all the people in work who are not being paid, rubble is one of the few growth sectors in Gaza’s besieged and battered economy, which is still largely sealed off from the outside world.

“What I make isn’t enough for anything,” admits Rushdie, a man who says he is 30 but looks about 45. “But this work gets me out of the house.”

Since the war, many young people have dropped out of school or college to help support their homeless and destitute families. “Before the war, I was studying mathematics at al-Quds Open University,” explains Mo’tasim, perched casually against his cart wearing a baseball cap, his cheery demeanor and smiley visage contrasting sharply with the ruins of Beit Hanoun which were pummeled heavily during the war.

“I’ve discontinued my studies for now because we need money,” he adds, explaining that his family had lost their home and were being housed in an UNRWA school until his brother got burnt in an accident. Now 15 of his family members are living together in a single room in a damaged building.

But you don’t need to be a mathematician like Mo’tasim to figure out that the situation in Gaza has become completely hopeless. When asked whether he had lost hope for the future, Mo’tasim laughed: “What hope? We had no hope to lose in the first place.”

Still, the young man has not abandoned his modest dreams of finishing his education and landing himself a dignified job. But like other youth in Gaza, the war has prompted him to do the maths and conclude that the only way is out. “If I got the chance, I’d leave Gaza and never return to Beit Hanoun,” Mo’tasim maintains.

Young Gazans dream of escape across the sea to Europe. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Young Gazans dream of escape across the sea to Europe. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

And Mo’tasim is no lone wolf, this urge to take flight affects young people of all walks of life. “I swear to you, if they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs,” claimed one unemployed graduate who had borrowed money to pay smugglers to get him to Italy but was caught in Egypt and deported back to Gaza.

“To sit home and wait for death, that is the definition of injustice,” he emphasised.

And this sense of hopelessness and powerlessness is common. While the post-traumatic stress epidemic among Gaza’s children following the 2014 offensive has received wide attention, less visible is the impact of the conflict on grown-ups. “When you have an adult in the situation we have in Gaza,” says Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP),  “this creates a feeling of impotence.”

“Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” elaborates Zeyada, who suffered just such a series of misfortunes when he lost his mother and five other close family members during an Israeli airstrike. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home, or a family member, or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Talk of post- or pre-trauma is futile, as trauma is constant and ongoing, not to mention multiple, some experts point out. This long-term, continuous stress has resulted in a growing plethora of psychological difficulties. These include low self-esteem, self-blame, displacement of anger, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, mood swings and full blown depression.

The unending, prolonged psychological strain, along with reluctance to consult mental health specialists, also lead to somatoform disorders, which are phantom physical ailments caused by underlying psychological conditions, which cause the sufferer additional psychological distress.

Thanks to the work of the GCMHP and other programs, awareness is rising of mental health issues and the stigma is much less than before, says Zeyada.

But Zeyada warns that there is little he and his colleagues can do beyond providing the psychological equivalent of a band aid, as long as the underlying causes are not addressed. “Without an enhanced socio-economic and political reality, you can’t talk about mental health,” he notes. “Mental health in Gaza is connected to human rights.”

And if nothing happens? Not only will Gaza turn into a completely uninhabitable space, Zeyada argues, a lost generation of traumatised and terrified children will reach adulthood: “How are you going to convince this generation tomorrow that there can be something called peace?”

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 1 July 2015.

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One year on: Gaza’s hidden psychological ruins

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is not just the landscape that is scarred and devastated, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck teetering on the verge of psychological ruin.

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 8 July 2015

At the Erez crossing.  Photo: ©Khaled Diab

At the Erez crossing. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Entering Gaza feels a little like infiltrating the world’s largest maximum security facility, home to 1.8 million inmates, living on 360 km² of land.

On the Israeli side of the high wall surrounding the imposing Erez crossing, there is a large field of magnificent sunflowers, which looks out of place in these bleak surroundings.

Small, impoverished, overcrowded and trapped between the deep blue sea and the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Gaza is a stifling and suffocating place. Already confronted with a severe housing shortage before the Israeli military offensive in 2014, the displaced live in whatever available spaces there are: UNRWA schools, tents, heat-intensifying tinplate or zinc containers, with extended family and even in damaged buildings.

With reconstruction work stalled for lack of materials and funds, the deep scars left on the landscape by last summer’s brutal war have not even begun to heal. Almost everywhere you go, the remains and ruins of war are visible, even in Gaza city’s only upmarket neighbourhood, al-Rimal.

Posing in Shuja’iyya. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Shuja’iyya, which was flattened by Israeli forces and became an icon of the war, is still largely a rubble-strewn crater, where the skeleton of the odd building still stands drunkenly like a fallen house of cards. Bulldozers slowly remove the traces of destruction and young children play in the newly vacated spaces, asking us to take their photos.

Given the many rounds of destruction Gaza has endured, there is a sort of geology of devastation. The oldest artefact is the short-lived but once-gleaming Yasser Arafat International Airport. But like Palestinian dreams of freedom and independence, its Andalusian arches lie in ruins. Now a grazing ground for camels, this locked gateway to the world is a poignant symbol of Gaza’s current siege.

However, it is not just the landscape and architecture that are scarred and devastated, psychologically, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck. “There is a high level of psychological pressure in the Gaza strip,” Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), told me.

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

On the surface, Gazans exhibit remarkable fortitude. But scratch a little deeper beneath the smiling, welcoming facades and you quickly find bubbling despair and overwhelming distress afflicting every segment of society.  “This is no life. No-one cares about us,” confessed Samer, a teenager forced to collect and sell rubble to help his now-homeless family.

With large families the norm, people seek whatever escape they can. Gaza’s teeming beaches are popular day and night, even in areas where raw sewage flows straight into the sea. “We go to sleep, we wake up, we take walks on the beach – we fill the time,” says unemployed graduate Saleh Ashour, 24, describing a typical day.

Everywhere you turn, there are many, many children, but few genuine childhoods are visible. With the exception of flashy, brightly lit toy cars on the beach promenade and a few makeshift football pitches, there is little in the way of child’s play, but a rising amount of child labour. And these poor young souls, who make up the majority of Gaza’s population, are the most vulnerable psychologically. “Children are the most sensitive group and they are the most likely to be affected by the socio-political reality,” explains Zeyada.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

And the trauma some have endured could buckle the toughest adult’s shoulders. Take Reda, 15, who lost her mother, a number of siblings and members of her extended family during an Israeli airstrike. Now she must care for her father and surviving siblings, while clinging desperately on to the memory of her mother. “My mum was my friend… I feel that she is talking to me,” the girl, who has shed 8kg since then, her appetite drained by dreams of eating the pizza her mother was preparing when disaster struck, told al-Mizan, a Gaza-based human rights organisation.

The trauma of loss has been tough on the adult population too. “I lost Arwa, the apple of my heart,” confesses Hamida, whose favourite niece perished with 18 other members of her family. “When I used to visit her, her smile would precede her and she would open her arms wide to hug me… Her drawings were so beautiful. I wish one had survived.”

But it is not just the trauma of war and the loss of loved ones which afflicts Gaza’s adult population. With unemployment at 44% (60% for youth), GDP at a quarter of what it would be without the blockade and real per-capita income a fifth of what it was two decades ago, according to the World Bank, the psychological impact of Gaza’s prolonged isolation is immense.

“The whole of life in Gaza is in a state of deterioration. There is no stability for anyone,” describes Hasan Zeyada.

“Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” elaborates Zeyada, who became the patient as well as the doctor when he lost his mother and five other close family members during an Israeli airstrike. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home, or a family member, or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

This prolonged and continuing stress and trauma have resulted in a growing plethora of psychological difficulties. These include low self-esteem, self-blame, displacement of anger, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, mood swings and full blown depression.

Displaced feelings of anger and frustration have also led to a growing level of domestic violence and more aggressive public behaviour, notes Zeyada.

“I’m sitting around, and this guy’s sitting around, and that guy. We’ve all had it up to here,” says Saleh Ashour. “If someone comes and cracks a joke with me, I find I get all serious with him.”

Faced with this economic, social and psychological wasteland, large swathes of Gazan society are possessed with the overwhelming urge to take flight and escape. “If they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs,” said unemployed graduate Amer Teemah, 24. And true enough, even successful Gazan academics and journalists I met want to leave, temporarily, they say, but they fear they may decide never to return.

Teeman and his lifelong friend, Ashour, paid $3,500 each to smugglers to get them to Europe, but failed.

“You are condemned to be a failure before you can even start,” says a crest-fallen Teemah, who has no clue what to do now that his outlandish plans to build a new life in another land have failed, and only landed him in debt.

Despite the immense emotional and psychological strain, Gazans are remarkably tough and resilient survivors. Thousands continue to work, despite not having received a salary in months, and there is an air of relative law and order, considering the dire circumstances.

But if the status quo continues, Gaza faces the prospect of total psychological ruin, with unforeseeable consequences. Ultimately, Gaza’s psychological and emotional malaise is of an entirely manmade nature. “Many of the psychological problems in Gaza are reactive. They are a reaction to the present situation,” observes Hasan Zeyada. “That means that mental health in Gaza is connected to the political reality.”

Gaza’s cure lies in Israel and Egypt’s hands, who need to urgently seek counselling regarding their irrational paranoia towards the Strip. Catastrophe can be averted if the blockade is lifted, which will provide the Gazan population with what it desperately misses the most: hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 13 June 2015.

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Hungary’s forgotten generation

 
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By Swaan van Iterson

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.

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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.

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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.

 


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Basque Country: In the eye of the financial storm

 
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By Eric Bienefeld

Although many Europeans associate it with political turmoil, the Basque Country is 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.

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Feeling Europe’s pain

 
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By Christian Nielsen

All is not well in the old world of organisational paternity, job security and economic rationality. But the silver lining is that we have millions of virtual ‘friends’ to feel our pain.

Friday 9 September 2011

As the networked society lurches from place to platform, and younger generations rail against babyboomer notions of working, saving and, indeed, living, very little of the Europe’s cradle-to-grave social paternity pact looks likely to survive. 

Greeks are on the streets protesting that austerity measures imposed on them as a pre-condition for bailout loans by the European Union and World Bank are crippling the small country. Those with an understanding of economics are claiming it will stimy demand and further hobble the economy’s ability to ‘grow’ itself out of the debt crisis that the Greeks have saddled their children with. 

Rational observers of the situation in other EU member states, but especially Germany, shake their heads in disgust that their hard-earned savings are being squandered on profligate states, in other words ‘lazy good-for-nothings’. But no one is allowed to say that for fear it stirs up the sort of divisions that in the past have led to fragmentations in Europe’s social order, and even wars. 

Portugal and Ireland have also faced harsh economic realities of late, but appear to have taken their medicine with a degree of understanding based on the thinking ‘we probably got ourselves into this in the first place’. 

Facing the ire of the world’s financial markets, the Italians are now also on the ropes. Parliamentary promises of sweeping cuts to bring the country’s bloated debt under control are being watered down by an ineffectual Italian government bent on safeguarding the wealth of the few.

Belgium, the place where the European Union starts – and perhaps ends – is not looking so good either, with markets starting to grow weary of the country’s inability to form a federal government which, as outsider’s perceive, is the only body capable of addressing the small nation’s own financial woes.

Britain’s got its own troubles, both economic and social, which largely coalesce under the banner of ‘what to do about youth disenfranchisement’. Well, more jobs and social mobility would be a start, so the chorus goes.

France, Holland and Germany are trying to pick up the economic pieces, while Spain is doing its best to put its own house in order. And the Nordic bloc are trying to remember why they got themselves into this Union in the first place – though Denmark and Sweden probably knew something by opting out of or neglecting to sign up to the euro. 

Friends like these

With economic stress, the usual issues of health, wellfare and social protection come under serious scrutiny. Younger generations, perhaps with the exception of those in Greece, are largely under no illusions that the systems set up by their parents and grandparents to provide a secure net and a way forward for post-war Europe will serve them equally as well.

Graduates and entrants to the labour market today are increasingly working on ‘contracts’ with minimal perks and protection and maximum ‘flexibility’, as it is no doubt sold to the X and Y generations who, according to Entrepreur  magazine, are sincere in their comittment to jobs but for a ‘limited time’. Employers, who perhaps initially lamented this new twist on company loyalty, are now spinning it to their own good. It costs way too much in most EU countries to hire and fire people under permanent work contracts, so this is a win-win, as they see it.

With this so-called ‘job mobility’ in overdrive – a euphamism for hidden, and even real unemployment – the contributions to Europe’s once highly valued pension and social welfare system are thinner or more fragmented, at best. And then the whole ageing European population argument pops up, which is a ticking timebomb for the current 35 to 50 year-old workers who are like the factory, the factory worker and vaccuum-sealing machine in the corner. This worker bee generation is struggling to pay for the babyboomers who are exiting through the gift shop, their own teenage children’s education and (potentially bleek) future, all the while hearing that the social contributions they are squirelling away may well be a dry well when and if they are ever allowed to retire.

Troubling as this all sounds, there is a silver lining … social networks have apparently got our backs. ‘Job for life’ may not be trending right now, but who the hell cares? We’ve friends for life, millions of them all over the world who ‘like’ us even though we don’t have a job or can’t pay for the next round. In fact, we’re all gurus in our own minds with more ‘followers’ than James Jones ever mustered.

We’ve got faster, better, ‘funner’ smart devices and no shortage of apps to serve our every whim. And there is the whole ‘future internet’ (which is, by the way trending) thingy that promises to unleash the power of all the data we’ve been happily putting out there, joining up stuff, services and infrastructure in a federated wonderland which has the potential to create new business models, more and even better jobs, and the ever-illusive economic growth. Yes, we’re in hommage to the European Commission’s ambitious Digital Agenda.

So, a message to all you belt-tightening Greeks, confused Italians, stoical Swedes, miffed Germans … you’ve got loads of friends who feel your pain, and that’s really all that matters.

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From right to far-right in Spain

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Why is there no prominent far-right party in Spain? Well, there is and there isn’t.

1 August 2011

It is a question that gets asked every time the extremist right goes on the rise elsewhere in Europe. Typically, the response from Spaniards, especially those on the left, comes as a half-joke, half-truth: “There is,” they say. “It’s the People’s Party,” comes the punch-line.

The truth is that the People’s Party, which brands itself as a conservative centre-right force similar to Britain’s Tories or Germany’s Christian Democrats, does have its roots – at least historically – in the ashes of General Franco’s fascist regime. Its 88-year-old founder and honorary chairman, Manuel Fraga, was a former minister in Franco’s government and several of the party’s prominent members are relatives of regime figures. But that’s all old history. And, all jokes apart, only the most extreme leftists would seriously describe the modern PP as a far-right party.

Spain’s history, and memories of the repression that existed until Franco’s death in 1975, make the far-right less appealing to Spaniards than voters in other countries. Therefore those Spaniards who worry about the right’s traditional pet peeves, such as immigration (a growing majority) or Christian and family values, and who might vote for far-right parties were they in another European country, tend to vote for the mainstream PP in Spain.

That is likely to be the case come November, with the PP looking likely to win a landslide victory in early elections as voters turn against the Socialist government, blaming it for the economic crisis that has given Spain the highest unemployment rate in Europe at more than 20%.

Immigration, that bugbear of right-wingers everywhere, will certainly be one issue in the election. One recently published report noted that between 2004 and 2008, the number of people who thought Spain’s immigration policies were too lax rose from 24% to 42% – and that was before the economy completely stalled. Half the population thinks that the presence of immigrants lowers the quality of social services, specifically health and education, and it is widely believed that they take jobs that would otherwise go to Spaniards.

The PP has certainly tried to stir up the immigration issue to its benefit, but there are signs that some people feel the PP is not – and will not – take a hard enough stance on the issue. As a result of unemployment and the economic crisis, for the first time, more radical parties are gaining a foothold. 

In local elections in May in the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia, a far-right xenophobic party, Plataforma per Catalunya, sprung out of almost nowhere to win 65,000 votes, returning 67 councillors, 50 more than in the previous elections.

Its campaign featured a video showing three attractive young women in miniskirts skipping with a rope in the city of Igualada to the accompaniment of a traditional Catalan folk song. Suddenly, the image changes to “Igualada 2015″ and shows three women dressed in burkas skipping to the rhythm of an Arab song. 

The party, led by Josep Anglada, a former disciple of fascist figure Blas Piñar, espouses the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric more commonly associated with the likes of France’s National Front or the British Nationalist Party. It is now a major player in Catalan politics.

If anti-immigrant sentiment continues to rise, it is possible that other extremist parties in other regions – and even nationally – may see gains like those of Plataforma per Catalunya, and the old joke about Spain not having a far right may no longer hold true.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. It is published here with the author’s consent. ©Andrew Eatwell.

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Enemies like us

 
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By Khaled Diab

Had the threat from far-right extremists been taken more seriously, could the Norway tragedy have been averted?

Monday 1 August 2011

The gruesome and horrifying attacks on 22 July 2011 in downtown Oslo and on the island of Utøya, which claimed at least 76 lives, including numerous children and minors, has caused Norway to lose its innocence, according to Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø. 

“I came from a country where fear of others had not found a foothold. A country you could leave for three months… and come home to read the newspapers and discover that the only thing new was the crossword puzzle,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“The Norwegian self-image before 22 July 2011 was that of a virgin – nature untouched by human hands, a nation unsullied by the ills of society,” Utøya added. “And yet there is no road back to the way it was before.”

An attack like this is tragic for any country, but in the peaceful and peaceable backwater of Norway, a small country with grand ambitions of spreading peace around the world – such as by hosting the secret talks which led to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords or by launching the process which led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions – it is perhaps doubly sad.

On 22 July 2011, months shy of a decade after the 11 September attacks in the United States, another virginity of sorts was lost: the increasingly popular and mainstream idea that the greatest threats facing the West are posed by Islamist jihadists and Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States.

In fact, in the early hours following the attacks, speculation by ‘talking head’ experts focused on the presumption that the atrocities had been committed by Islamist extremists, despite the absence of any evidence to support this.

And, even worse, once the identity of the perpetrator was known – Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right extremist and Christian fundamentalist – the semantic shift in the coverage was palpable. Generally gone were the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorist’ and, instead, we read and heard ‘gunman’, ‘extremist, or ‘attacker’ – even in the normally even-handed Guardian – despite the fact that he is being charged with “destabilising or destroying basic functions of society” and “creating serious fear in the population”, i.e. acts of terrorism.

At a certain level, such speculation is part of human nature because people need to know why, and it is far easier to apportion blame on the ‘other’ than to think the unthinkable or at least the unsavoury, that one of our own did this to us.

But even if it is human nature, such knee-jerkism is not humane, especially because it could have dire consequences for an already-vilified and distrusted minority, i.e. Muslims. This is doubly so when considering that even non-specialists could see gaping holes in the early theories of the security experts.

The main question that dogged my wife and I was “Why Norway?” The only reason we could think of as to why Islamist extremists would target Oslo is that it is a ‘soft target’. This could perhaps explain the bombs which went off in the government quarter, but why attack a Labour Party youth camp? And with bombings being the choice method used by Islamists when attacking Western targets, why did a gunman go around picking off individuals one after the other?

Well, even we had internalised the security narrative sufficiently to doubt our doubts, and decide it may have been Jihadists after all, despite our suspicions. Then, reports began to spread that witnesses were saying that the attacker was blond. As the details emerged, the initial outrage turned to shock and surprise – since when did white Europeans engage in terrorism and kill their own, many were asking?

This can’t be terrorism, these must be the actions of a mad “lone wolf”, some were insisting. But Breivik himself claims that he is not alone and is part of a Europe-wide anti-Islam network with two cells in Norway.

Although the attacks in Norway have taken the world by surprise, the signs that something like this might happen have been there for many years for those who were willing to take off their Islamist blinkers and look objectively at the wider picture.

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks in London, when debate again focused on “homegrown extremism”, but of the Islamist ilk, not the European far-right, I wrote, in an opinion piece for The Guardian in the UK, that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies in Europe probably constitute a greater threat than Islamic extremism.

I argued that, while the threat posed by a small number of violent Islamist extremists is very real and the danger of Islamic fundamentalism should not be downplayed or understated, the risk posed by the European far-right was greater because it is an indigenous ideology that can cruise under the radar while society is distracted with the spectre of external threats.

“Neo-Nazis have yet to pull off any attack as spectacular as those in Madrid or London. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to or don’t plan to,” I cautioned. Moreover, they “are responsible for a regular and growing stream of violence against Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minorities across Europe”.

A lot of readers, inspired by the assurances of ‘security experts’, at the time dismissed my thesis, with some even accusing me of “agenda-pushing” and “fear-mongering”, with claims that “the far right are simply not a menace”.  Likewise, my theory, which I expounded three years earlier, that the United States and some parts of Europe were in the throes of a nascent “Christian jihad” was also met with a fair amount of ridicule.

So, the conventional wisdom remained the guiding principle, and Western security services continued their quest to protect us from the Islamist threat, with Europol reporting a 50% increase in the arrests of suspected Islamic extremists in 2010. Meanwhile, Anders Behring Breivik, was working for several years to blow this conventional wisdom out of the water: apparently undetected, he plotted this attack, tried to purchase weapons, engaged in hate-filled online debate and wrote a 1,500-page far-right manifesto entitled ‘2083 – a European Declaration of Independence’.

In its 2010 report, Europol did not take very seriously the risk posed by right-wing extremism, judging that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane and the numbers of right-wing extremist criminal offences are relatively low”. However, it noted that “the professionalism in their propaganda and organisation shows that right-wing extremist groups have the will to enlarge and spread their ideology”.

So was Breivik’s apparent ability to cruise below the radar an understandable oversight or a monumental security failure?

On the one hand, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an important pillar of the legal system and, according to Janne Kristiansen, chief of the Norwegian Police Security Service, Breivik was careful in the run-up to the attack and “deliberately desisted from violent exhortations on the net [and] has more or less been a moderate”.

On the other hand, Islamists who believe in creating a global Islamic caliphate, for instance, are routinely monitored by European security services, and numerous arrests of conservative Muslims have been made over the years on the slightest suspicion of possible violent intent. In Breivik’s case, he managed to research and write a lengthy manifesto containing many worrying passages, including his belief that his actions will help to spark a civil war in Europe that will ultimately lead to the expulsion of “cultural Marxists” and Muslims.

Moreover, even if his initial preparations were careful, Breivik’s megalomania seems to have got the better of him in the final countdown to the attack, which could have afforded security services the chance to apprehend him before he caused real destruction.

Six hours before the fateful and bloody killings, Breivik posted a YouTube video in which he urged fellow ultra-conservatives to “embrace martyrdom”. A text accompanying the video detailed his plans for the attack, while his blood-chilling manifesto was released an hour and a half beforehand – yet no action seems to have been taken to apprehend him. 

Why? Perhaps in a country that has never been rocked by a major terrorist attack, Norway’s security services were wholly unprepared for such an eventuality, at least, one originating with a native Norwegian – after all, what possible reason could a Norwegian have to commit violetn terrorism in such a prosperous and egalitarian society.

 At another level, perhaps Norwegian and European security services, like society at large, have so internalised the false yet popular notion that, although the majority of Muslims are not terrorists, the majority of terrorists are Muslims. I wonder if, in future, we will learn that Breivik’s name was flagged by some low-ranking analyst but his or her superiors failed to take the warning seriously.

Breivik provides an object lesson to Europeans and Americans alike that they ignore the extremists within their own ranks at their peril. There are also important lessons to be drawn from the West’s security-obsessed handling of Islamic extremism when it comes to the far-right. Far-right extremism cannot solely be viewed through the prism of security, but we need to strike at the ideological and socioeconomic factors that fuel it.

To do so, we need to build greater awareness and better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural factors feeding this phenomenon. Just like their Islamist counterparts, many people who are drawn to far-right ideologies feel disempowered and marginalised, and believe that the way to overcome this is to turn back the clock to an idyllic ‘pure’ past.

And, as unemployment figures rise and government spending falls on the back of the recession, this sense of exclusion and frustration will grow – and minorities will continue to fill the role of convenient scapegoat for the economic ills visited upon us by the banking crisis and neo-liberal economics.

“The economic recession has led to political and social tensions and, in a number of member states, has fuelled the conditions for terrorism and extremism,” concludes Europol.

Mainstream society is, in certain ways, complicit in the emergence of this troubling current. The increasingly mainstream vilification and demonisation of the West’s Muslim minority and Islam in general – based on fear, insecurity, ignorance and political expediency, as well as the worry that extremist groups will succeed in their bid to ‘Islamise’ Europe – since the 11 September terror attacks a decade ago has created fertile ground for the far-right to lay down deeper roots.

We should not deal with far-right extremism and its violent manifestations with the same level of sensationalism and mass hysteria we reserve for extremist Islam – we need to be vigilant, not vigilante about it.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism.

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Sexual harassment: No online way out

 
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Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more.

 Monday 20 June 2011

Today is a day dedicated to blogging about sexual harassment. The idea is for all the bloggers in Egypt and outside it to raise awareness about the issue by writing about it – all on the same day. However, I always ask myself, does the average sexual harasser who would hiss at and follow a high school girl in Dokki or grope a tourist walking down Tala’at Harb Street read these blogs (many of which are written in English) or even hear about them? The answer is an obvious ‘no’.

Internet usage in Egypt is still largely confined to educated circles. If you surf the web for knowledge (other than pornographic knowledge) in Egypt, read blogs and have a Facebook account, then you are most likely a university student/graduate and probably a member of at least the middle class and most likely wouldn’t around groping that high school girl around the corner. 

So how could we avoid turning this event into ‘people who think sexual harassment is bad’ writing for ‘other people who also think sexual harassment is bad’ in an infinite loop, where everyone is exchanging similar information, knowledge and opinions in our beloved political blogospheric circle, instead of trying to think and act outside this circle.

At the end of today, we will all feel quite good about our contributions and think we must be on the right track, but even though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, we really aren’t. In fact, sexual harassment is just so ingrained that even the toughest stain-removal blogging won’t be able to wash it off.

In order to combat sexual harassment, a consensus among those who blog about it today needs to be reached that there are a complicated and inextricably intertwined mix of social, economic and political reasons behind it.

Let’s take a quick look at the economic factor. It’s not only extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions that lead people to sexual harassment; many poor societies don’t suffer from this social cancer the same way Egypt does, after all.

It is this weird urban mix of dire poverty and extreme wealth which creates this immense feeling of social frustrations and anger at rich people. The victims of this kind of poverty-driven sexual harassment are usually the wealthy western-dressed girls driving around the city in their luxury cars, who embody, in the eyes of their tormentors, the lack of social justice, while their perceived physical and social vulnerabilitymakes them easy prey to these economic and social frustrations. So here, the magic ingredients of this distasteful dish of sexual harassment are poverty and social injustice, mixed in with a potent dose of misogyny. 

Part of being a ‘Man’ in our patriarchal society is to be sexually explicit by showing sexual interest in everything that even hints at femininity. If a group of teenagers hanging around a street corner see a girl passing by and one of them refrains from oogling her out or making a remark about her, let alone ask the other guys to stop it, he would probably end up on the receiving end of their derision and mockery. Victims of this type of harassment are usually the less fortunate girls who are forced into commuting their way around the city and rubbing shoulders with hundreds, if not thousands of men, on a daily basis.

This kind of male peer pressure also increases the chance of sexual harassment. This again is combined with economic reasons; a high unemployment rate and poor economic conditions increase the number of young guys wandering aimlessly around the streets of Egypt. They have endless hours on their hands, due to the lack of work, and little financial ability to do anything meaningful to kill time.

The conservative solution of enforcing gender segregation is not working either but could be possibly increasing sexual harassment. Gender segregation would only widen the communication gap between men and women, creating more gender-based social problems, such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. We should not give up on trying to solve a long-term problem through short-term ‘comfort ‘ measures, such as women-only metro cars and beaches.

As for the political aspect of the problem, it is simply the political system that allowed for these economic and social misfortunes to flourish and control our lifestyle. Additionally, it is the authoritarian political system that stripped many citizens off their dignity to the extent that they see no problem in infringing on someone’s privacy and personal space without invitation. The slightest sense of self-respect would stop any individual from doing that out of embarrassment, even if they continue to harbour misogynistic beliefs.

Even though I see the nobility of the intentions behind calling the 20 June a day for blogging about sexual harassment, this unedifying phenomenon cannot be blogged away as long as the reasons behind it are not tackled. Even if we reach a million blog entries today, there will still be a zillion sexual harassment incidents tomorrow.

A more holistic approach is needed when combating sexual harassment, and the only entity that has the ability to address this inter-connected complex situation comprehensively and put a framework for solving it on the political, social, economic, legal and security levels is the government. Therefore, the Egyptian blogosphere’s main duty should be to lobby the government to do more through its education programmes, media apparatus, poverty alleviation schemes and the establishment of a more socially just atmosphere, rather than trying to address the harassers because they are simply not listening.

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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The Jasmine Revolution

 
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By Osama Diab

Tunisia’s revolution will spread the scent of its jasmine to oppressed nations all over the region.

1 February 2011

Analysts and experts never cease to analyse the sociopolitical nature of the Arab world. Especially since 9/11, most have set their expectations low and been cynical about any social or political change taking place in the land of strongmen and dictatorial power. We, Middle Easterners, have been accused of being passive, unable to mobilise, and unwilling to fight for our rights.

After blowing all over the globe, the long-awaited winds of political change have decided to finally visit the Middle East. North African countries have in the past few years seen a large number of riots, sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations to protest low wages and the high cost of living, but a ruthless police state has always stopped these outcries of anger and frustration from developing into a popular revolution ousting a regime from power. Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution on 14 January  2011 marked the first successful attempt to overthrow a dictator by a popular revolution. And it took place in a country that was thought to be one of the most stable in a region where autocracy was believed to be deep-rooted and nearly impossible to abolish.

The people of Tunisia proved us all wrong by forcing dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali out in a way unprecedented in the Arab world. The only way an Arab dictator would take his suitcase and escape his own country used to be through a military coup, until a few days ago, thanks to the people of Tunisia.

But what does that mean to neighboring countries like Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt? No one can claim it will have no impact, because it already has. At least four people have self-immolated in Egypt out of desperation, which is how it all started in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself to death sparking non-stop riots for three weeks to protest against deteriorating living conditions and high unemployment. Riots have erupted in Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria since Tunisia’s uprising.

Democracy, like authoritarianism, is contagious. It is hard to find a standalone democracy surrounded by dictatorships, or vice versa. In the Autumn of Nations in 1989, a few Eastern European countries overthrew their communist regimes, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of many communist regimes in the region after that. Communism was not hurt just in Eastern Europe, but in many countries all over the world following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Another major ripple effect was Latin America’s serious steps towards democracy over the past three decades in a fashion rarely seen in the developing world. If real democracy takes hold in Tunisia, it will increase the chances of it happening elsewhere close by.

However, it’s hard to predict the extent of the effect on neighbouring countries because, even though they belong to the same region and share a lot in common, every country still has a different economic, social and political nature. Copying and pasting a Tunisian scenario in Egypt, Libya, Algeria or Morocco is unlikely to happen. However, North Africa now seems well prepared and more ready than ever to dispose of its authoritarian regimes and gradually start a new era of people’s empowerment due to a steady increase of dissidence and a growing political momentum in some of these countries, in reaction to dire economic situations, high levels of corruption and worsening human rights conditions.

Even though Tunisia’s revolution might not be replicated, it will still bring many benefits to the people of neighbouring countries.

Firstly, it acts as a clear warning message to authoritarian regimes that over-relying on security apparatuses to remain in power with no popular support is unsustainable. It also conveys the message that the economic and political rights of the masses must be dealt with, and cannot be silenced by a heavy hand.

Secondly, it ends the myth that Islamists are the only groups capable of toppling regimes in this region – an idea established after the Iranian revolution and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, one that has been used by secular dictatorships in the North African region as a scare tactic to win the West’s support. The idea is simple: imposed secular authoritarianism has been for long preferred over an elected Islamic regime by the world’s superpowers. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once stated that the United States has long favoured stability over democracy in the Middle East and ended up achieving neither.

It also implies that the way for a government to gain legitimacy is from its own people rather than by allying with superpowers, as they all turned their back on Ben Ali after he was overthrown by his people. France, his biggest former ally, has refused to grant him asylum. Many regimes relied solely on their alliance with Western superpowers at the expense of their own people. This might no longer be a good bargain for Arab dictators.

Whether or not we will see the fall of one North African regime after the other is hard to predict and not guaranteed, but the good news is that Tunisia’s revolution will spread the scent of its jasmine to oppressed nations all over the region, inspiring and empowering people in their fight against unjust regimes.

This article was first published by Worldpress.org on 31 January 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab.

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Baksheesh and social tipping points

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s ‘baksheesh’ culture helps poor people get by and maintains relative social peace, but it encourages subservience.

21 January 2011

One sure sign that I’ve arrived in Egypt is that my wallet and pockets suddenly get fatter as they pile on the Egyptian pounds to deal with the country’s largely cash-based economy. In addition, I always endeavour to carry plenty of lower denomination banknotes to facilitate the prodigious amount of tipping ahead.

With the relative uncommonness of tipping in northern Europe, I experience quite a culture shock for the first few days of any visit. In Belgium, tipping is only common at restaurants and occasionally at bars, though quite a few Belgians I know never tip.

In Egypt, leaving sweeteners at eateries is only the tip of the tipping iceberg. Alongside haggling, tipping is a pervasive feature of the Egyptian economy. Millions of Egyptians depend on these gratuities for their survival and exist in a kind of parallel ‘baksheesh economy‘, abandoned by government and employers alike. In fact, the cynic in me might quip that, with the grinding poverty, neglect, marginalisation and disempowerment that poor Egyptians endure, tips could be the only change, loose as it might be, that some are willing to believe in.

In a country with high unemployment and overflowing with surplus labour, well-off Egyptians tip everyone from deliverymen, unofficial parking supervisors and petrol pump attendants to the even less necessary toilet attendants who hand them a napkin to dry their hands and the bagger who packs their shopping at the checkout.

Expat Egyptians are often expected to go that extra mile, and dig deeper into their pockets and tip at a greater angle than locals. By the end of any visit to Egypt, I experience something akin to tipping fatigue.

My wife speaks fluent Arabic, is streetwise and can haggle better than a local, but the language of baksheesh is one she’s never warmed to nor cared to master. Despite years of experience and my awareness of the economic importance of tipping, I also dislike the practice which, I am well aware, I unwittingly connive in perpetuating.

When I pay baksheesh, I do so partly because it is a social norm but mostly out of a sense of guilt at the wide economic gulf generally separating me from the person I am tipping. And in a society where the LE 35 minimum monthly wage (less than £4) is irrelevant, where labour protection is a joke and where social safety nets are tattered and threadbare, baksheesh helps somewhat to redistribute wealth and, at its best, is an informal expression of social solidarity and cohesion.

But, as my wife rightly points out, baksheesh is neither the most efficient nor the fairest way of seeking greater socio-economic justice. For people like me who believe in equality and egalitarianism, part of the problem is that baksheesh reward subservience, punish dignity and encourage a master-servant sort of mentality between the well-off and the poor.

Though tips may take the edge off poverty and maintain social peace, looked at unflatteringly, they also serve to keep the poor in their place by constantly reminding them of how their economic survival is not down to their hard work but due to the patronage of their “betters”.

In anticipation of a tip, ingratiation and hypocrisy are often the order of the day, though I make a point of tipping less or not at all in such circumstances. Very proud workers might forgo tips which, for many menial service sector jobs, is tantamount to financial suicide, while others will swallow their pride at the altar of economic survival, which necessitates that the sensitive tipper must try his best to be subtle and considerate when tipping them.

Baksheesh also provide employers in the service sector with the opportunity to dump the responsibility for their workers on to the customers’ laps and, hence, act as a disincentive to work, except in circumstances where a tip is forthcoming.

The baksheesh culture makes it difficult to read the intentions of certain strangers and decide whether they’re doing you a favour out of the goodness of their heart or in anticipation of your papering their palm with banknotes. Misread the signals and you could end up unintentionally insulting a generous stranger or being insulted by a mean one. The same can also apply to poorer people you know personally.

Far more troubling is how the baksheesh culture has become endemic, over the past few decades, in the underpaid civil service and public sector, which, one could say, has effectively privatised the government and made it accessible only to those who can pay.

Though I too have been guilty of discreetly greasing some palms to expedite paperwork to which I’m entitled, the occasions on which I have done this have left me with a bitter aftertaste, a sense of self-loathing and a “never again” vow.

Usually, however, I obstinately refuse to pay which brings along its own set of frustrations in the form of stonewalling, bureaucratic origami and long and winding paper trails. A few years ago, my wife and I gave up, in anger and frustration, on registering our marriage in Egypt because it was transforming our holiday into a helly-day, and I’ve yet to pluck up the courage to try to register our son’s birth.

As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty. On the down side, tips provide poor incentives to work, create subservience and even promote petty corruption. And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 6 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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