Egypt’s dollar woes

 
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By Khaled Diab

Hopes are devaluation will resolve Egypt’s dollar crisis, but the situation could spin out of control without a global currency for international trade.

100le

Monday 11 April 2016

As Egypt’s economy continues to nosedive, the country has been gripped by a chronic dollar crisis in recent months, exacerbated by falling revenues from tourism and the Suez Canal.

The dollar shortage has fuelled inflation and severely hurt importers and domestic manufacturers who depend on imported raw materials or components. For instance, many imported medicines have become totally unaffordable and there is a shortage in locally produced generic alternatives due to the inability to import active ingredients.

The hard currency shortage has even affected the black market, with a number of reports in the Arabic media over hours-long searches for dollars at inflated prices.

To tackle the situation and to cool the overheated black market, the Egyptian Central Bank decided to devalue the Egyptian pound by 13 percent and to sell $198 million to commercial lenders at 8.85LE, from its previous level of 7.73LE.

The Cairo stock exchange, along with financial analysts, was jubilant at the news, recording its largest single-day rise, of 7%, since July 2013, and ending the week a massive 14% up.

However, the effect on Egypt’s long-suffering poor and vulnerable will be far less benign – their underpaid labour has also been devalued.

“Egypt’s poor are enduring the brunt of Egypt’s economic crisis,” observes Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, in a reference to the high inflation, removal of subsidies, and increased unemployment which have corroded living standards. “The devaluation will undoubtedly increase the cost of certain essential goods, particularly food.”

Continued and worsening hardship for the masses is also bound to hurt the regime. Support for President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was predicated on his much-hyped capacity to bring Egypt to a safe port of stability and prosperity.

So far, the Sisi regime has demanded of ordinary Egyptians to tighten their belts, while cushioning the wealthy, has given activists and critics a royal belting, and has been unable to keep a rein on spiralling terrorism and insurgency. In addition, despite escalating repression, industrial action continues to sweep across the country (Arabic).

And this disaffection and instability is only bound to grow if the regime delivers only immense pain and no gain.

The Central Bank’s devaluation and loosening of the official exchange rate may not be enough to salvage the situation if Egyptians continue to face dollar shortages and if those receiving remittances from abroad find better prices on the black market, argues Kaldas.

Central Bank Governor Tarek Amer has vowed to do whatever it takes to keep the currency market in check.

However, the early signs were not promising. Despite the devaluation and dollar injections, the Egyptian pound weakened on the black market, reaching 9.55LE to the dollar shortly after the devaluation, while the devaluation is further fuelling a property bubble. In early April, it stood at 10.30LE, according to Reuters, though the official rate has remained stable at 8.78LE.

This has led financial analysts to expect further cuts in the official rate, with the attendant pain it will cause ordinary Egyptians. JP Morgan forecasts that the Egyptian pound will be devalued by a total of 35%this year, with a projected inflation of 14%.

And as has been demonstrated elsewhere in the world umpteen times in the past, from Argentina to Germany, the situation could easily spiral out of control, if these measures elicit panic rather than confidence, or if speculators run the pound into the ground.

Beyond Egypt’s specific economic woes and poor governance, this points at a deeper, wider malaise: how the global trading system is stacked and loaded against smaller economies.

The main reason Egypt and other countries suffer from “dollar crises” is because the US dollar is the world’s dominant reserve currency and the main medium of international trade, though the euro has closed the gap in recent years.

Obliging smaller and poorer economies to trade in the dollar and other reserve currencies makes them vulnerable to the whims of the currency markets and forex speculators.

In addition, the dollar and euro distort trade in favour of the United States and Europe, enabling them to import and borrow far more cheaply than their fundamentals should allow.

But there are downsides for top-dog economies, such as making their exports less competitive and the inevitable trade deficits caused by the “Triffin Dilemma”. The unnaturally low cost of credit has played a central role in the US’s dangerously high public debt – on which it has come perilously close to defaulting – and contributed to the US subprime crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis.

The solution to this, in my humble view, is the introduction of a single global currency for the purposes of international trade. This would help remove the volatility of currency markets, end speculation, eliminate the currency black markets, and even the global economic playing field.

This is not a new idea. John Maynard Keynes, the legendary British economist, proposed just such a currency as the lynchpin of the post-war economic order, but was torpedoed by American opposition. Following the volatility and crises which have afflicted the global economy in recent years, China, Russia and other emerging powers have also called for just such currency reform.

A world trading currency would not only help stabilise and boost the global economy, it would also reduce the social fallout caused by dollar shortages and the immense inflationary pressures they create.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 28 March 2016.

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The Mubarak enigma

 
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By Khaled Diab

The removal of Hosni Mubarak was likely the proudest moment in Egypt’s recent history, yet, five years on, some Egyptians miss the deposed dictator.

Mubarak_Sadat

Tuesday 16 February 2016

It was one of those paradoxes of revolution. Hosni Mubarak’s most hotly anticipated speech was to prove to be his last.

Never much of an orator, whenever a Baba Mubarak speech was on TV, Egyptians tended to switch off. Even when the former dictator had a captive audience, they too would switch off – behind glazed eyes or patient, polite nods.

But on 10 February 2011, millions of Egyptians – on Tahrir Square, in public spaces across the country and abroad – waited with baited breath to hear whether their self-appointed leader would fall on his proverbial sword.

When he finally appeared Mubarak defied the military’s hints and disappointed the fevered speculations. Claiming that he “never sought power or fake popularity”, Mubarak insisted that it was his duty to “take Egypt and its people to a safe harbour”.

Sharing the disappointment of the jeering crowds on Tahrir, I penned a futile open letter in which I accused Mubarak of possessing the “extraordinary knack for snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness”.

The next day, 11 February 2011, the once unimaginable, even unthinkable, happened. Reflecting the mundanity of many historic moments, the hastily appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, sounding like a bored civil servant, announced Mubarak’s resignation in a short, lacklustre statement.

Egyptians partied on the streets as though Egypt had not only qualified for but also won the World Cup. And in a way it had. Against all the odds, Egyptians from all walks of life, led by their youth, had toppled the despot – whom most feared would leave office in a coffin and anoint his son to succeed him – and brought his repressive police state to its knees.

Although it was the evening twilight, it was as if a blinding new dawn had just broken.

Even though I was far away in Europe, those mesmerising 18 days were the proudest moments of my life as an Egyptian, despite my aversion to nationalism and my misgivings about how, after making Mubarak walk the plank, the army had taken over the reins of power directly.

I felt a burning pride for those millions of courageous, everyday heroes, those masses relegated to the footnotes of history, and how they had smashed their way through the margins, armed only with their willpower, to write – for better or for worse – a new chapter in Egypt’s history.

“History will judge me and others for our merits and faults,” Mubarak insisted defiantly in one of his final speeches.

And how should history judge him?

During the uprising, Mubarak reverted repeatedly to the chestnut he had been parroting for years, that the choice for Egypt was between the “chaos” of Islamism and the “stability” he supposedly safeguarded. At his trial, he returned to the theme when he blamed Egypt’s subsequent turmoil on “merchants of religion and their local and foreign allies”.

And for a surprising number of people, the mayhem and turbulence of the past five years vindicate Mubarak. A recent example of this was when the Egyptian actress May Ezzeddin, during an interview about her private life and career, suddenly decided to thank the former president for “the security I felt during your rule”.

Mubarak sorryThis sentiment is not new. Right from the start of the revolution, previously quiet Mubarak supporters suddenly emerged from obscurity to apologise to the president on Facebook, hold counter-protests, beat up protesters, and even hack revolutionary sites.

Known disaparaginly as “feloul”, the Arabic for “remnants”, many were part of or closely connected to the former regime. Others were simply those who feared the abyss and preferred the devil they knew.

So would Egypt have been better off with Mubarak?

I doubt it very much. What the former president’s supporters overlook is that Mubarak planted and nurtured the storm Egypt is harvesting now.

His three decades of one-man rule continued the stifling military dictatorship Egypt has lived under since 1952. The Free Officers’ promise to steer Egypt towards democracy after a three-year transitional period was left broken and unfulfilled for over six decades, despite the deep belief in civilian and parliamentary rule entertained by Egypt’s first figure-head president Muhammad Naguib.

Unlike efficient one-party states, such as China, Mubarak’s Egypt had no clear rules for succession and unlike his two predecessors, he even refused to appoint a vice-president, making the question of succession, even from dictatorship to dictatorship, let alone democracy, a murky one, fraught with uncertainty.

So regardless of whether or not millions had taken to the streets, Egypt was hurtling towards a brick wall come election time in late 2011 and possibly off a cliff if Mubarak were to die in office.

Corruption and state incompetence, a problem under every president, became an incurable plague during Mubarak’s years. Bringing democracy to Egypt is an easier challenge, in my view, than correcting the culture of bribery, mismanagement and incompetence dogging most sectors.

And the neo-liberal “reforms” introduced by the international financial institutions and Egypt’s politicised crony capitalists has stripped down and sold off the state and Egypt’s resources at bargain basement prices, and privatised just about everything, including the banks of the Nile.

While the 1% thrived, education, health, employment regressed to levels in which youth without the backing of well-off families found themselves under-educated, prospectless and repressed.

It was highly likely that this crumbling state, like a derelict, badly constructed house, would collapse without the big, bad wolf of the “unwashed masses” blowing it down.

The 2011 revolution has, in many ways, helped to make the most of Egypt’s sorry state. It has given Egyptians the belief that they can change their country’s unpleasant reality and it has put Egypt’s leadership on notice that, no matter what they throw at the population, if they do not deliver positive results, they could be next…

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 February 2016.

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A utopian refuge for refugees?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can an Egyptian billionaires vision of turning a Mediterranean island into a just republic for refugees help solve the refugee crisis?

Monday 14 September 2015

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

This verse from the poem by Emma Lazarus titled The New Colossus was not quite the words used by Naguib Sawiris, but it seems to be what he meant. The Egyptian billionaire caused a tempest when he announced his wish to purchase a Mediterranean island – possibly near Rhodes, where the original Colossus stood – to provide shelter for the region’s desperate refugees.

“Greece or Italy sell me an island, I’ll [declare] its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” Sawiris tweeted. And this brave, new refugee republic would be named Ilan, the Egyptian tycoon later elaborated, in  honour of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child whose haunting image shook the world.

With neighbouring countries unable to cope further with the influx of Syrian refugees and wealthy Gulf states doing almost nothing to take them in – while even contributing by proxy to the Syrian refugee crisis and directly in Yemen – Sawiris is the latest entrepreneur to step into the void. One prominent example was Turkey’s yoghurt moghul, Hamdi Ulukaya, who pledged to give away more than half his $1.4 billion fortune to help Kurdish and other refugees.

Sawiris’s proposal resonated so widely because it is an appealing and symbolic notion which tugs at the heartstrings. As untold thousands of refugees take to the sea to escape the shipwreck of failed and failing nation states, Aylan island will provide them with a safe haven from the storm, and a place where they can live in dignity, and not be “treated and used like cattle,” in Sawiris’s word.

The scheme, though extremely costly for the Egyptian billionaire, sounds impressively self-sufficient. Housing, educational and other infrastructure on the uninhabited island would be built, and presumably operated, by the refugees themselves, providing them with a shot at independence and dignity, rather than the marginalisation and unemployment that often greets those fleeing conflict.

Sawiris’s implied faith in the refugees’ abilities, work ethic and potential for productivity is an implicit jab at Europe’s anti-immigrant right, who regard refugees and migrants as  lazy layabouts and a threat to their way of life. It would also help boost Europe’s capacity to absorb refugees by providing it with a purpose-built refuge.

That said, despite the presence of numerous candidate islands and the welcome income to the cash-strapped treasuries of Greece or Italy, it seems unlikely that either country will take enthusiastically to the scheme.

One major stumbling block is the question of sovereignty. Which European country would be willing to cede territory, which would be declared “independent”, to the eccentric scheme of a foreign billionaire?

Even if they were to accept this or were to retain sovereignty, there would be the possible fear that, rather than an alternative for refugees which would sidestep the European mainland, the island would simply become a stepping stone to Europe, rather like the Italian island of Lampedussa or the Greek island of Kos. This would especially be the case if Sawiris’s idealistic project ends up becoming little more than a glorified refugee camp, rather than a utopian republic.

But it is Sawiris’s almost Platonic discourse of  a just republic for refugees that is probably the most appealing to the Arab public’s ear, especially if, against the odds and expectations, this idealised and idyllic oasis can succeed where Arab regimes have failed. In fact, it would be extremely poignant – even poetic – if refugees fleeing murderous dictatorships and blood-thirsty non-state groups managed to construct a functioning and productive society which respects individual freedom and dignity. If successful, I imagine it would attract Arab immigrants, not just refugees.

In addition to the challenge of building an effective society from scratch by truamatised people from diverse backgrounds, one wonders whether Sawiris will have the commitment to carry through such a feat.

It is true that Sawiris was a self-declared supporter (and fairly enthusiastic for a businessman who made the bulk of his fortune under Mubarak) of the 2011 revolution, helping set up the “Council of Wisemen” which was rejected by Egypt’s revolutionary youth.

However, like with many Egyptians, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi spooked him, and the party he established, the Free Egyptians Party, backed Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign for president, despite the clearly undemocratic way al-Sisi had got to where he was and his violent repression of dissent.

This raises the question of whether rich Egyptians and Arabs can help lead their societies down the path to freedom, justice, equality and prosperity.

Some Arab tycoons are joining the growing movement of billionaires committed to philanthropy. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has voiced his intentions to give away his considerable fortune.

Despite the undoubted value of philanthropy and the importance of interclass solidarity, the world’s billionaires are more a part of the problem than the solution, especially when you consider that the richest 1% own more than the rest of the world, and 85 or so billionaires are worth as much, in economic terms, as half of humanity.

This is the case in the Arab world, and perhaps more so. Not only is economic inequality massive, and widening, the region has become a living laboratory for unfettered neo-liberal economics and a stronghold for crony capitalism.

The intimate links, both explicit and implicit, between the business elites, the military and repressive regimes across the region mean that, no matter how well-meaning, the individual efforts of (relatively) enlightened tycoons are no substitute for systematic and fundamental change and reform.

More than greater philanthropy, the Arab world is crying out for greater social democracy, equity, solidarity, welfare systems, education and justice for all.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 September 2015.

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Taxing questions about democracy in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the Middle East, there appears to be a link between autocracy and low taxes. Would higher taxation lead to greater representation or repression?

Tuesday 18 August 2015

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, sages, from Benjamin Franklin to Daniel Defoe, have been informing us for centuries.

In the Middle East, death is becoming an ever-more probable prospect of increasing ugliness and savagery. But taxes are a very different matter. Compared with Europe, America and other highly industrialised economies, most of the region’s taxation levels and tax revenue are very low.

The most extreme example are the petroleum-producing states. For example, Saudi Arabia’s total tax revenues account for around 5% of its GDP, while Oman’s is an even lower 2%. This is because most Gulf countries, flush with oil revenues, impose little-to-no taxation on their citizens and corporations.

Even in countries which are not rich in oil, governments impose and, more importantly, collect surprisingly little in the way of taxes compared with their Western counterparts. In Egypt, for example, tax revenue hovers at around 13-14% of GDP, even though the country possesses no sizeable natural resource wealth.

The inability or unwillingness of countries in the region to tax their citizens has far-reaching implications. Although everything from religion and the patriarchy to the deep state and corruption have been explored as causes behind the ongoing failure of the Arab revolutions, the issue of the economic bottom line has received surprisingly scarce attention.

The imposition of taxes by the state was a major factor in the emergence of democracy in Britain and Western Europe. Though it may be largely forgotten today, democratic participation was once contingent on the state’s financial dependence on its citizens. In fact, in its early days, rather than one person, one vote, the democratic system in place resembled more a Democracy Inc, with shareholders instead of equal voters.

For instance, from the 15th century, voting in England was limited to people holding land worth 40 shillings or more, and property was the defining feature of the electoral system until after World War I.

Reflecting how common the notion was that only those who could pay were allowed to play, the prominent Victorian liberal John Stuart Mill argued: “The assembly that votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed.”

In a way, this is the stage much of the Arab world is at right now, albeit informally. Through backdoors and informal channels, the wealthy and the upper-middle classes can influence the direction of the state and have their rights protected ­– at least far more so than the masses.

Today, the West lives in a more enlightened age and every citizen – whether rich or poor, male or female – possesses an equal right to vote. But the basic premise remains unchanged: the government takes money from the citizenry and so citizens have the right to choose the government and hold it to account.

If taxation is at the core of representation, does the inverse hold: that without taxation, there is no representation?

While numerous complex factors affect the level of authoritarianism in the Middle East, I’m convinced that it is no coincidence that political participation and democracy seem to be (loosely) correlated to the level of taxation.

Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that the oil-rich states tend to be the most autocratic. This is both because the rentier state, as it is known, is not beholden to its citizens for its survival and because it can use the wealth it has accumulated to purchase influence and silence or ignore demands for reform.

Even non-petroleum countries often depend on resources other than taxes, including foreign aid, mining rights, or revenues from national assets such as the Suez Canal. This results in a situation in which governments are more concerned aabout pleasing foreign corporations and states than their own citizens.

“A basic feature of the social contract in the Arab countries is that the citizen accepts limitations on public representation and state accountability in return for state-provided benefits,” explained the Arab Human Development Report in 2009. “Such a contract is only possible when states have sources of revenue other than direct taxes, such as oil, to finance public expenditure.”

However, in the poorer Arab countries this tacit social pact has broken down, and it is teetering on the verge of collapse in the wealthier states. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that in the poorer countries, the state plays little to no (positive) role in the lives of its underprivileged citizens.

In Egypt, for instance, the state once provided free education and healthcare of adequate standard, and attempted to guarantee full employment, at least in theory. Today, state schools are ignorance factories, state hospitals are death incubators, and with the public and private sectors in tatters, people are increasingly relying on the informal economy for employment and sustenance. That is why “bread” and “social justice” were two of the revolution’s main demands.

This raises the intriguing question of why it is that, though higher taxation is in the interests of both the state and its citizens, neither side seems terribly interested in broadening the tax base.

On the part of the government, Middle Eastern regimes do not have the authority or credibility to collect more taxes. More importantly, it appears they would generally prefer to enjoy a monopoly on power in an emaciated and failing state than to share power with citizens in a more vibrant, powerful and robust political partnership.

The motives of citizens are more complex. Naturally, taxes are unpopular almost everywhere. In the Middle East, more so. In much of the Ottoman Empire, peasants and workers were heavily taxed under a system known as Ilitizam, or “tax farming”. This double taxation had a devastating effect, such as depopulating entire villages in Egypt.

The situation did not improve with Western rule. After European lenders had helped to bankrupt Egypt during the construction of the Suez Canal, Britain formally occupied Egypt. In a 19th-century version of the Greek debt crisis, Britain handed over Egypt’s public treasury to European banks who swallowed up two-thirds of the state’s revenue.

With high taxation generally leading to no representation, not to mention a great deal of repression, persecution and corruption, it is unsurprising that the people of the region have such a cavalier attitude towards paying taxes. And native governments, with their high level of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, have not helped raise the credibility of paying taxes in the public eye.

But there are some initial signs of change. Governments across the region are looking to increase their revenues by broadening the tax base. These efforts have mostly focused on indirect taxation, such as sales and consumption taxes, which are easier to levy and require less accountability.

However, indirect taxation is reaching its limits. Egypt, for one, has raised its low income tax level to try to shore up its deficit, especially as aid from its Gulf patrons gradually dries up. Even in the Gulf, a robust debate has begun about the need to raise tax levels to compensate for fluctuating and falling oil revenues. Additionally, it is time for the region to find a new ownership model for natural resources which boosts accountability and places control in the hands of citizens.

While governments are bound to try to impose taxation without real representation, in modern economies, this would require the kind of coercive ability no state in the region possesses. In addition, it will undoubtedly lead, like in the 19th century, to falling tax receipts, as taxpayers collapse out of exhaustion or find ever-more creative ways to evade taxation.

Although taxation alone will not bring about fair representation, manipulated cleverly by the citizenry, it will force the region’s governments to become more accountable and, eventually, more democratic.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 11 August 2015.

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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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