عن تجربة اليونان المؤلمة ودروسها لمصر

 
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بقلم أسامة دياب وريم عبد الحليم

يوجد الكثير من الدروس المستفادة لمصر من أزمة اليونان الحادة

الخميس 30 يوليو 2015

قبل أن تنضم اليونان لمنطقة اليورو، كان المستثمرون فى العالم يرونها كدولة ترتفع فيها المخاطر الائتمانية عن غيرها من دول أوروبا، بسبب ضعف أطر الحوكمة بالمقارنة بغيرها من الدول الأوروبية. بعد انضمامها لمنطقة اليورو، اختلفت النظرة بسبب الدور المتوقع لمنطقة اليورو فى إنقاذ اليونان من أى أزمة مالية، والإسهام فى دفع اقتصادها عبر الديون الدافعة للنمو.

بدأ المستثمرون ومؤسسات التمويل الدولية فى إقراض اليونان لدفع النمو بها، اقترضت ثم اقترضت وبمعدلات فائدة كانت منخفضة نسبيا عما كان عليه الحال قبل دخول اليونان لليورو، ولكن لم يكن الوضع قابلا للاستدامة؛ فوجود اليونان فى منطقة اليورو نفسه قيد حركتها فى مواجهة أزمة العجز فى الميزان التجارى ومشكلات العملة. واستمرت نسبة الدين للناتج المحلى الإجمالى فى ارتفاع حتى خلال سنوات النمو الاقتصادى 2003 ــ2007.

تفاقمت بشكل واضح الأزمة فى اليونان عام 2009، كنتيجة لمشكلات تزاوج العجز الهيكلى وارتفاع الدين العام كنسبة للناتج المحلى الإجمالى، تلتها أزمة ثقة فى السندات اليونانية وبعدها ارتفاع واضح فى أسعار الفائدة ليغذى العجز مرة أخرى، وتبدأ حلقة الأزمة التى لا تنتهى.

***

تدخل الدائنين الدوليين ممثلين فى اللجنة الأوروبية والبنك المركزى الأوروبى وصندوق النقد الدولى والمعروفين منذ ذلك الحين باسم «الترويكا» فى مايو 2010، بقرض بلغت قيمته 110 مليارات يورو لإنقاذ اليونان من الإفلاس بشرط اتخاذ مجموعة من الإجراءات التقشفية تتلخص فى تحقيق فائض أولى ( فائض الإيرادات عن النفقات مخصوم منها الفوائد المستحقة على الديون) فى الموازنة العامة للدولة يصل إلى 4.5% من الناتج المحلى الإجمالى، وإجراء «إصلاحات» هيكلية وإسراع فى وتيرة الخصخصة لبعض الأصول الحكومية.

حقيقة الأمر أنه فى أبريل 2010 كانت نسب السندات المستحقة للأجانب تمثل نحو 70% من السندات الحكومية فى اليونان، ومن ثم استخدمت جميع القروض التالية لحل الأزمة فى سداد المديونيات، فنحو 92% من أموال حزم الانقاذ ذهبت لمؤسسات التمويل الدولية والبنوك و8% فقط استفادت منها الحكومة اليونانية وفقا لإحصاءات تحالف مؤسسات جوبيلى الهادف لرفع الوعى بتأثيرات الديون السلبية على الاقتصاد. عولت المؤسسات الدولية على هذه «الاصلاحات» للحد من تفاقم عجز الموازنة العامة للدولة وخفض نسبة الدين العام للناتج المحلى الإجمالى بدءا من 2012/ 2013؛ واليوم يقدر صندوق النقد الدولى متطلبات اليونان من الفائض الأولى بنحو 7.2% لمدة عقد من الزمان للوفاء بمتطلباتها، وهو الأمر الذى يستحيل تحققه فى ظل العجز فى ميزان مدفوعاتها وارتفاع أسعار الفائدة والانكماش الاقتصادى، حتى وإن قدر الفائض الأولى المتحقق عام 2013/ 2014 بنحو 2.7% من الناتج المحلى الإجمالى؛ ليكون مؤشرا شاهدا على ما قامت به الحكومة اليونانية من اجراءات تقشفية بالفعل.

والآن مع نسبة ديون للناتج تفوق 175% فى عام 2015، ومعدلات بطالة أكثر من 25%، وتحول أزمة اليونان من أزمة اقتصادية لمعضلة سياسية، تسقط أداتان قام عليهما الاقتصاد العالمى، «الديون الدافعة للنمو» و«الدائن كملاذ أخير للمدينين»؛ وباعتراف المسئولين فى صندوق النقد الدولى، تضع اليونان نهاية لنظرية التقشف كوسيلة لسداد الديون؛ وتضع الاقتصاد العالمى أمام لحظة فارقة مهمة، لابد فيها من مراجعة أدواته الاقتصادية والبحث فى تناقضاتها، مثل كيفية تحقيق نمو مع التقشف، وفرص انتظار ازدهارا فى الدول الأضعف بشروط الدول الأقوى اقتصاديا مع احتكار الثانية لأدوات التمويل وخطط السداد.

***

من الضرورى أن نتعلم من دروس اليونان فى مصر فى ظل أزمة عجز ومديونية متفاقمة حيث زادت خدمة الدين العام كنسبة للناتج المحلى الإجمالى بشكل مطرد فى السنوات الأخيرة من 6.9% فى 2008/2009 إلى 14.1% فى 2013/2014 وفقا لبيانات وزارة المالية، وبمقارنة نسبة الدين العام من الوعاء الذى سيتم السداد منه وهو إجمالى إيرادات الدولة نجد أنه فى السنة المالية 2007/2008 كانت نسبة خدمة الدين العام (سداد الأقساط والفوائد المستحقة على الدين) من إجمالى إيرادات الدولة 25%، وزادت هذه النسبة تدريجيا حتى وصلت إلى 61% فى 2013/2014.

أما إذا تمت مقارنة خدمة الدين بإجمالى الإيرادات الضريبية فقط فنرى أنها زادت تدريجيا من 43.5% 2007/2008 إلى نحو 108% بل إنه وفقا لتوقعات وزارة المالية فى مشروع الموازنة الجديد فمن المتوقع أن تصل تكلفة خدمة الدين إلى أكثر من 122% من جملة الإيرادات الضريبية.

بعبارة أخرى، فإن ما يدفعه مجمل المصريين من جميع أنواع الضرائب (وهو المصدر الرئيسى لتمويل الدولة) لا يكفى الوفاء بمستحقات الدين العام من فوائد وأقساط؛ مع عجز أولى بقطاع الموازنة ارتفع من 1.8% فى عام 2008/ 2009 إلى 4.5% فى عام 2013/ 2014. إذا كان الجانب الأكبر من هذا الدين محليا، إلا أنه امتص غالب السيولة المصرفية، وتتجه الدولة لإصدار سندات دولارية؛ ومحاولات متعددة لخفض عجز الموازنة العامة بها دون جدوى حقيقية خاصة إذا تم استبعاد تأثير الصدفة فى تراجع أسعار النفط عالميا فى العام الماضى. فى الوقت نفسه تراجعت نسبة الإيرادات الحكومية للناتج المحلى الإجمالى من 27.2% فى عام 2008/ 2009 إلى 22.9% فى عام 2013/ 2014 برغم تدفق الإيرادات فى صورة منح من دول الخليج فى هذا العام.

***

فى ضوء كل هذا، كيف يمكن السيطرة على عجز الموازنة ومن ثم تراكم الدين العام بدون تقشف يؤدى إلى تباطؤ أو انكماش اقتصادى كما يحدث فى اليونان، أو تضخم جامح كنتيجة لطبع النقود وزيادة الضرائب على السلع والخدمات والدخول الدنيا. يبدو أن الحل الوحيد أمامنا حاليا من أجل الاستدامة المالية هو العمل على زيادة بند الإيرادات بدلا من تخفيض بند النفقات لتفادى إحداث تباطؤ أو انكماش اقتصادى خاصة وأن المصروفات الحكومية تمثل نحو 30% من الناتج المحلى الإجمالى، فأى تخفيض فيه سيكون له بالغ الأثر على معدلات النمو بلا شك، ومعدلات النمو المرتفعة ضرورية لقدرة الدولة على خدمة الدين بشكل مستدام. والأهم أنه لابد من إعادة النظر فى هيكل المصروفات من منطلق القضاء على المصروفات والبنود المرتبطة بوجود قنوات الفساد وإهدار المال العام، وليس خفض المصروفات لأجل خفضها وبشكل يؤدى إلى المزيد من التدهور فى مستويات الخدمات العامة والحماية الاجتماعية.

تقوم الحكومة بالفعل فى زيادة الإيرادات العامة لكنها تقوم بها بشكل يقوم بتوسيع الفجوة أكثر بين الأغنياء والفقراء والتقليل من القدرة الشرائية للقطاع الأعرض من المواطنين عن طريق زيادة الضرائب على السلع والخدمات وهو ما قد يؤثر على معدلات النمو الحقيقى، ويرجع هذا إلى عدم القدرة على تحصيل ضرائب مباشرة من الأغنياء لأسباب يطول شرحها، فتضطر الحكومة لزيادة الاعتماد على الضرائب غير المباشرة، ففى العشرين عاما الأخيرة زاد الاعتماد على ضريبة السلع والخدمات، وهى الضريبة غير المباشرة الأبرز فى الموازنة، من 27.1% من إجمالى الحصيلة الضريبية فى موازنة 1995/1996 إلى35.3% فى موازنة 2013/2014 مع إعلان وزارة المالية عن وصولها إلى 40% من إجمالى الحصيلة الضريبية فى الفترة ما بين يوليو 2014 وأبريل 2015.

***

وكما أظهرت لنا اليونان فالتقشف الزائد يعنى نموا أقل، وقدرة أقل على الوفاء بالتزامات المديونية ويصطدم بتراجع التوقعات حول الحصيلة الضريبية ومن ثم الإيرادات كنسب للناتج المحلي؛ النظرة لحالة اليونان يضعنا يقينا أمام عدم إمكان التعويل على التقشف أو جذب الأموال الأجنبية مهما كان شكل بيئة الحوافز الممنوحة وما تمثله من خسائر للاقتصاد المصرى، فلابد من حلول تعيد النظر لدور الإيرادات العامة فى تشكيل العجز والنمو، وتتخطى نظريات دفع النمو بالدين ومعاملة العجز فى الموازنة العامة كظاهرة محاسبيه.

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This article first appeared in al-Shorouq on 7 July 2015. It is reproduced here with the authors’ permission.

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Defusing the social media timebomb

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Countering the “weaponisation of the internet” with top-down initiatives is unlikely to succeed. What we need are true grassroots efforts.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Governments are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

Modern terrorists have embraced social media and “weaponised the internet” to achieve their goals, Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) last week.

The timing, though tragic in light of the latest extremist attacks in Tunisia, France and the United States, has never been better to band together in the global struggle against extremism, he suggested.

Founded in the United States just nine months ago, CEP is rallying public support for programmes to counter the narrative of extremists, expose the sources of funding and inspiration for such discourse, and advocate for effective laws and policies that promote “freedom, security and tolerance”.

The US branch of CEP has the backing of some big names in diplomacy, law enforcement and community-based support aimed at identifying and changing the narrative of hatred that feeds radicalism, violence and terrorism.

What has gone so wrong that a youth from a comfortable suburban home in, say, Birmingham feels compelled to take up with murderers? This is the key question that an organisation like CEP seeks to tackle.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman, who lent his support to the European launch of CEP, said the world is awash in blood spilt in brutal acts of violence. And it is not state versus state, he said, but the acts of lone wolves, disenfranchised individuals and extremist organisations so often inspired by the internet.

The intensity of this crisis cannot be solved by governments alone, he continued, it needs counter-narratives from a range of voices – non-government actors, educators, local and religious leaders – to “break down the stereotypes that inculcate violence”, to stop and help people before they “go bad”.

CEP revealed two of its own weapons in this battle: what it calls its counter-narrative programme and digital disruption campaign. The former identifies vulnerable “at-risk populations” and employs influencers – people with an “out-sized” ability to reach and influence such as social workers, community leaders – to engage especially young people, listen to their concerns and address them with better narratives. The digital disruption, though sinister-sounding, is largely aimed at urging social media like Twitter to be more vigilant of the content on their platforms, and to urge the removal of extremist, threatening language.

This has been likened, the experts conceded, to “whack-a-mole” – the game where you hit a mole on the head when it emerges as more keep popping up around it – but it has already proved successful, CEP’s team confirmed.

The power of social media is in the network of connections; every time you take out nodes (sources), the spread of extremist diatribe is weakened and takes time to reconnect or find its critical mass again.

As it seeks to deepen and widen the programme, CEP is under no illusions that countering extremism and terrorist acts everywhere will be easy, especially as modern information flow tends to flout borders. There is no single answer and the challenge most definitely cannot be tackled by states alone.

The lone wolf threat, an extremist who remains off the radar, still “keeps everyone awake at night”, stressed Senator Lieberman. “People reach into your neighbourhood from the other side of the planet.”

So the idea is to work from the ground up and provide the mechanisms and messages to raise awareness and negate the extreme voices that have won the early ground in this battle of our time.

At some point, like an AK 47 or any other weapon supplied to a terrorist, social media that don’t help in the campaign being waged against the weaponised words can be deemed to be providing material support. “We have to degrade [the extremists’] ability to spread cyber-jihad,” the senator stressed.

Somehow, you wonder

Though well-intended, most probably well-funded – CEP prefers not to reveal information about its backers – and definitely able to recruit big political names to the cause, I can’t help but doubt that even a trans-Atlantic organisation like CEP can really build a grassroots counter-movement, an Occupy Wall Street or Tiananmen Square moment. Pressure on social media outlets to crack down on the content is still a top-down measure. Yet it’s the bubble-up action at local level that stands the best chance.

At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause.

But have we reached the lowest ebb? It certainly seems like it, as more and more copycat killers pop up to grandstand in full view of the world’s internet denizens by killing innocent people, and claiming some spurious connection to one or another vying cult of death and destruction.

Yes, the time, tragically, is right but do the masses realise this? Will they raise their voices in protest and in their own way – with their own words and stories – counter extremism when and where it pops up? And do we need a project or programme to run such a movement? That’s to be seen.

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Greek islands: No holiday in the sun for Syrian refugees

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Kos is straining under the influx of Syrian refugees.  Though locals are hospitable, the refugees are desperate to move on but where or how eludes them.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Over the past couple of months, the Eastern Aegean islands have become the main gateway for the refugees and the immigrants seeking entrance into the European Union. The mere few kilometres separating the Greek islands from the Turkish coast have long been one of the Turkish traffickers’ favourite approaches, while the sheer volume of people making their escape to a hoped-for better life has never been greater.

“You know the most devastating irony of all? That we have to pay one thousand euros to get from Bodrum to Kos, while the return trip costs the tourists only €10,” said Amir Obada, a thirty-year-old Syrian standing with me in the shade cast by the abandoned hotel Captain Elias on the outskirts of the Greek island of Kos.

Amir comes from the famous Christian town of Malula in Syria, where a bitter struggle between government forces, the Islamic State, various insurgent militias and armed groups of local Christians has been taking place for the past few years.

When the war broke out, Amir was just finishing his studies in chemistry. His father was one of the professors at the Malula university, which got shut down on account of the fighting. As a devout pacifist, Amir refused to pick up a rifle. Staying home, he assured me, was not an option. His family home got shredded in the crossfire. And so he set off for Turkey and then to one of the Eastern Aegean islands, where a serious humanitarian crises has been developing over the past few months.

The Greek authorities found themselves unprepared for such a massive inflow of people. So far this year, the island of Kos alone has seen the arrival of some 7,500 migrants and refugees – six times more than was the case over the same period in 2014. Most of them had come in from Syria and Afghanistan. During the second half of May and the first days of June, Kos – still much favoured by tourists from all over the world – was in a state of turmoil. Anywhere between 100 and 500 people were arriving daily by rubber dinghies and small sailboats from the Turkish coast.

One of them was Amir Obada, who set off on his journey accompanied by five of his friends and relatives from Syria. At the time of our interview, he was sharing a small room with them in the squalid, abandoned hotel with no electricity and no functioning toilet facilities.

Walk west

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“I’m so glad I’m safe. I don’t know what else to say. These last two years I’ve seen some things that, well… I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war,” Amir confesses. “But I can’t help thinking about my parents and relatives who are still in Syria – I think about them all the time. Unlike most of my travelling companions, I’m not married and I don’t have any children. In a time of war, that is a huge advantage.”

Amir proudly produced his ticket for the evening ferry to Athens. The Greek authorities – at least partly because of the approaching peak of the tourist season – had recently introduced the so-called fast-track for Syrian refugees. This means that the people arriving daily aren’t given too much hassle. After they reach Athens, they are issued with a permit for a six-month stay, which can later mostly be renewed without great difficulty.

None of the many refugees I talked to wished to remain in Greece. They understood all too well that the country is in a state of profound crisis, and that things can only get worse. “I had to leave behind my wife and four children – they’re waiting for me in the countryside near Damascus. I promised them that, once I reached Europe, I would do everything in my power to help them join me,” Muhammad Issa, 45, told me, as he sat in a cramped room filled with old mattresses, tattered blankets and empty plastic water bottles. “Yes, I know it’s going to be very hard. But I simply couldn’t have brought them along on such a dangerous journey. It was too risky. And the children were too small.”

Some two and a half years ago, a similar task – getting his loved ones safely out of Syria – was undertaken by Yassin Sinno, 26. He somehow managed to escape Malula and reach London through Turkey. The British authorities approved his request for asylum. Earning his living as a waiter in a coffee shop in Yorkshire, he is now free to travel all over the European Union. He came to the island of Kos to pick up his brothers Mahmmoud and Hussein, who had sailed here in the same boat as Amir Obada.

“I can’t describe my joy at seeing them again… It was God’s will that we met again, and we all cried,” Yassin grinned, going on to describe how he had arranged his two brothers’ entire trip from Syria to Greece. The goal now is to get to Athens and seek out one of the more competent ‘contacts’ who can get his siblings further on their way. The official routes toward Great Britain are out of the question. At this time, the only remotely tenable way out of Greece and on to Western Europe is the extremely dangerous and arduous walk through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Muhammad Issa managed to reach Greece on his second attempt. The first time around he was caught by the Turkish police. He was thrown in jail for two days and was then released. In Bodrum and all over the nearby coastal cities in Turkey, where the trafficking trade is booming, this is more or less a matter of routine. “There were 44 of us on the rubber boat. It was very dangerous. We went out around midnight. The trip only took two and a half hours,” Muhammed recalled in the ruined hotel. “I was very scared, because I can’t swim. When we got to Kos, they took us in with decency and kindness. It’s just that here, where we are now stationed, things are quite unbearable. But tonight we’re moving on.”

Amir Obada didn’t have a clear (geographical) destination in front of him. He was more than willing to go anywhere where he could continue his studies in chemistry. His country of choice would be Sweden, yet he knew all too well that this choice, for him, might prove to be an unattainable luxury. He was prepared, he said, to start from scratch. In order to reach Greece he had had to invest a great deal of his savings. This is the reason why on arriving to Kos, like most of his friends and companions, he took up lodgings in the filthy and dilapidated ruin on the outskirts of Hippocrates’ town.

In front of the main building, a few Afghan teenagers were kicking around a somewhat deflated football. On a meadow nearby, a pair of cows were grazing in the sun, while a number of Pakistani men were lying in the shade.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On a platform in front of what remains of the hotel, the local authorities have set up a system of pipes providing the residents with drinkable water. This was where the refugees could also wash and shave. As I strolled by, some of them were washing their clothes and mending the decrepit shoes that still needed to get them over the long trek to Central Europe.

“I’m not used to living like this,” Amir frowned at me.  “Until the war, we lived very well back home in Syria. I have to admit that the people here greeted us kindly, but there are no resources to be spared for us refugees.” Amir chose his rundown lodgings in order to save money. “I’ll need every coin I got to get me further off into Europe. I have decided to walk,” he informs me. “I intend to cross Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary. Once there, I will probably take a train through Austria all the way to Germany. To be honest, I don’t have much choice.”

Good Samaritans

As he told me of his plans, Amir’s comrades were nodding their silent agreement. No one among them was able to produce anything resembling a clear-cut plan. They were hoping for one of the target European countries to grant them asylum. As of yet, no one had informed them how to apply or even what basic rights had been accorded to them. In general, the presence of the international humanitarian outfits on the island of Kos was much too scarce for comfort. The necessary infrastructure for helping the migrants and refugees was virtually non-existent. For the most part, these tormented souls were depending on the help of local good Samaritans. For the most basic medical support, a small itinerant band of Doctors without Borders (MSF) was on hand to provide assistance.

“The island was completely unprepared for such a crisis. The sheer number of incoming people is staggering. And it is only likely to get bigger. The smugglers’ routes have been changed. Right now, the Eastern Aegean islands are the most popular location. Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos… The Greek authorities are trying to help, but they themselves are struggling under some pretty heavy loads. There’s no infrastructure here to help us help these poor people. So we had to improvise,” explains Aggelos Kallinis, the local UNHCR representative, who was speaking to me in front of the local police station, where hundreds of people were waiting every day to obtain the permits enabling them to proceed to Athens. “We’ve managed to enlist the help of the local community, some NGOs and a number of local volunteers. Surprisingly, many of them have risen to the occasion, but the situation is still rough, very rough.”

All-inclusive solidarity

©Boštjan Videmšek

©Boštjan Videmšek

On a daily basis, the Kos Solidarity volunteer group comes to the Captain Elias ‘hotel’ to distribute food, clothes, shoes and items of basic hygiene. When these local Samaritans – Sofia (a primary school teacher), Elena (a doctor), Alexander (a primary school teacher) and Jorgos (a businessman) – arrive to bring the refugees their one daily meal, a huge cheer can be heard from far away. The children, some of them not even ten years old, cling hard to the visiting humanitarian workers who can barely control the surges of the starving crowd. Under the vicious sun, the locals keep handing out the food prepared especially for the migrants in the kitchens of some of the nearby hotels.

There is plenty of food, enough to last the whole day. A tremendous gratitude can be felt emanating from the crowd, but also a great sense of shame. At home, these people weren’t used to living off their fellow humans’ pity. Quite the contrary. The Syrians and the Afghans come from arguably two of the most hospitable countries in the world. My long years of war reporting have taught me that a country’s hospitality usually bears a direct correlation to the scope of the tragedies experienced by the country’s population.

 

A tired man in his mid-forties, flanked by four of his six children, was observing the distribution of food from a distance. Visibly anxious, he obviously wanted to reach out and get his fair share, yet his pride wouldn’t let him. “I come from the Golan Heights, right near the Israeli border. Sometime before the war I moved to a suburb of Damascus, where I started a small business. I was doing very well. I built myself a big house and got married. Everything was fine. I had a good life,” Bilal informed me rather angrily.

During the first two years of war, not much trouble came to his neighbourhood, but his business slowly ground to a halt. About a year ago, his house got razed in the fighting. “The Free Syrian Army and the government forces were fighting for control of our mahala. A bomb was thrown directly on my house,” he recalled. “I don’t know who dropped that bomb, and frankly I don’t care. Me, my wife and six children – we got out of there as fast as we could.”

By now, there was a distinct tremble to Bilal’s voice. He landed on Kos last Friday. Huddled at the hotel with his family, he was waiting to proceed towards Athens, and then… And then? “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. My only goal is to for us to be free and to be safe. To get where we are now, we had to spend quite a lot of money. The trip took twenty-two days,” he described.

“From Syria, we went to Lebanon, then we flew to Turkey. We had to pay off a huge number of people. You know that merely to go from Turkey to Greece by boat you have to pay one thousand euros per person,” Bilal continued. “I mean, of course we would like to move on! Maybe to Germany or even Scandinavia. But I know it’s going to be very hard. I want to find work. I have a lot of skills and experience.”

As I talked to Bilal, his wife and two youngest children lingered in the cold room of the abandoned hotel. The lady didn’t feel very well. Some time ago, she underwent a complicated and dangerous operation. Breast cancer had taken a visible toll, yet she still managed to endure the risky and exhausting journey to freedom. “I can’t wait for my [wife] to get well, so we can all relax and start living again,” Bilal said quietly: “Inshallah, God willing!” He was still making a strong effort not to join the line formed by his fellow refugees waiting for food.

Absolute uncertainty

In the hot Aegean mid-afternoon, a pair of young Syrian girls were simultaneously leaning against a wall and against each other. They had been doing their best not to fall asleep, but their exhaustion had finally prevailed. Sleeping, they were breathing in unison, with their mouths open, joined at the hip as if they were Siamese twins.

But the trauma of everything these two little girls had been through was etched deeply onto their young, sleeping faces.

Only a few hours before, they had arrived in Kos at the break of dawn in a rubber dinghy, along with their parents and a number of other Syrian refugees. “Hey, do you need a room? A hotel? Cheap – very cheap!” an older local woman accosted the family as they stood waiting in line in front of the police station. The two sleeping girls’ parents hesitated for a moment. As to their immediate future, they had very little relevant information to go on, even though they had been waiting in the crowd since early morning.

“Only for one night? Just to get some rest? We want to move on as soon as we can, madam,” the father replied and gently woke his daughters. Once they stopped propping each other, they nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Their mother gave them a warm hug.

They then scooped up their pitiful possessions and followed the Greek woman’s lead.

This “lucky” family may have managed to escape the bloodiest conflict of our time, and they may have just passed the major mark of having successfully landed in the EU. But their future was still heartbreakingly uncertain.

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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Netanyahu and the Middle East: The risky business of “business as usual”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu’s re-election promises “business as usual”. But this is an extremely risky venture on the Iranian-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian fronts.

'Business as usual' following Netanyahu's re-election is a risky venture.  Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

‘Business as usual’ following Netanyahu’s re-election is a risky venture.
Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

Monday 30 March 2015

Despite the hope of change entertained by the Israeli left, the recent elections in Israel have confirmed Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud as the largest party.

As Netanyahu strives to cobble together a hard-right coalition – against the earlier wishes of President Reuven Rivlin who wanted a “national unity” government – he is driving yet another nail into the coffin of the two-state solution, as the settlement juggernaut continues its unstoppable momentum, further derailing the prospects for peace.

The future looks bleak for the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinians in the West Bank are likely to see more of their land disappear under the foundations of new settlements and more of their civil rights trampled under the boots of the occupation.

In Israel and Jerusalem, the rising tide of anti-Arab sentiment is likely to surge in light of the clear race-baiting that occurred during the elections. One notorious incident involved Netanyahu, who tried to get right-wingers to flock to voting stations by tapping into their deepest anxieties and prejudices with his warning that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls.” Earlier, outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman sounded like a wannabe recruit to the Islamic State (ISIS) when he suggested that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe.”

But the massing dark clouds have contained some slivers of silver lining. Despite the grim mood in progressive circles, some Israeli leftists are consoling themselves that, collectively, the left has become a little stronger in this election and the right has weakened.

Some Palestinian commentators and observers believe that Netanyahu, with his explicit dismissal of the two-state solution and his vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, will force the West to rethink its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and take more robust action to bring about a resolution.

While there are plenty of signs of disappointment, anger and soul-searching in Washington and other Western capitals – which are bound to grow in light of the latest Israeli spying scandal – it is not a foregone conclusion that anything fundamental will change. The USA and Europe may find a novel way to fudge the issues, while paying lip service to the long-deceased peace process. Another possibility is that Washington and the EU may simply disengage from the process, as they fight fires elsewhere.

Galvanised by their increasingly embattled position and right-wing efforts to sideline them politically, the long-divided Arab parties in Israel joined forces, with spectacular results. Under the charismatic and conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh, who also tried to reach out to Jewish voters, the Joint List managed the unprecedented feat of becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.

With the ongoing Israelisation of the occupied territories and international inaction, on the one hand, and growing Palestinian rights-based activism, on the other, the next Knesset could mark a turning point for the conflict in which the two-state option is abandoned in favour of a civil rights struggle for the foreseeable future.

In the wider region, Netanyahu’s re-election is likely to spell “business as usual”, short of some radical, unexpected upheaval. The Middle East is caught up in other crises, such as the civil war in Syria, the continued unravelling of Iraq, Arab-Iranian rivalry, the growing threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), and now the war in Yemen, as well as simple survival for most of the region’s regimes.

In such a climate, Netanyahu offers Middle Eastern leaders a form of perceived stability, in the shape of the “devil you know”. Arab leaders will occasionally condemn Israeli excesses and urge Netanyahu to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative, but inaction will be the norm.

However, the status quo is extremely volatile, and so “business as usual” could easily lead to more Israeli-Palestinian violence and war, as witnessed last summer, which could quite easily spiral out of control next time.

Israel’s war against Hamas plays well in places like Egypt, where the once-allied Muslim Brotherhood has been demonised, persecuted, banned and declared a “terrorist organisation”. When it comes to Iran, Israeli, Saudi and Iranian hardliners, though for different reasons, find themselves bizarre and coincidental allies of convenience in their opposition to a possible nuclear deal.

Regionally, it is the Iran-Israel axis that is potentially the most volatile and unpredictable. Though both sides have thus far limited their animosity to the rhetorical sphere and proxy clashes, this contained confrontation carries the risk of spinning out of control.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a new far-right government in Israel will seek to deflect internal opposition and dissent, as well as divert Western attention, by ratcheting up the public fear quotient of the “existential threat” posed by the Ayatollahs.

Likewise, in Iran, hardliners may try to derail the cautious and conciliatory path being pursued by Hassan Rouhani, and undermine his more moderate presidency, possibly by painting him as an appeaser of America and Israel.

This is likely to happen as elections to select a new Assembly of Experts and a new parliament in 2016 loom ever closer. With the ailing Ayotollah Ali Khamenei and his latest powerful conservative ally, the new leader of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, determined to block moderates, Rouhani’s job is likely to get much tougher.

A deal on Iran’s nuclear programme would help to reduce this pressure by giving Rouhani a visible victory and enabling Iran’s staggering economy to recover. However, this is opposed by Netanyahu and influential Republican hardliners in Washington.

It is my view that Iran can gain the upper hand and the moral high ground by abandoning its nuclear ambitions in favour of solar and other renewable energies. If the only reason Iran is carrying out nuclear research is truly to ensure its energy security and prepare for its post-oil future, then renewables are much more promising.

Nuclear power is not only dirty, dangerous and extremely expensive, investing in it will make Iran forever dependent on others, both for the supply of raw materials and for technology. With an abundant supply of sunshine, Iran can be self-sufficient in solar power. In addition, if it diverts the billions it is investing in nuclear energy to renewables, it can quickly become a regional leader in this extremely important and profitable emerging sector, and perhaps eventually even a global one.

But pride at backing down to Western pressure, paranoia, nuclear envy, and hardline pressure make this path improbable, at best.

For its part, to avoid the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, whether with Iran or an Arab country spurred to catch up, Israel should enter its own nuclear arsenal into earnest negotiations for a WMD-free region – an offer that the rest of the region has had on the table for decades.

But pride, paranoia, existential angst and the fear of being seen to back down make this scenario too extremely unlikely.

Though “business as usual” is the path of least resistance on the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Iranian axes, they are also risky enterprises as the old equilibriums shift.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 25 March 2015.

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The Brussels press corps: Shaken, not sunken

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite the crisis in traditional media, the Brussels press corps continues to survive and thrive, but not without difficulties.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map. Image: europa.eu

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map.
Image: europa.eu

Thursday 26 February 2015

Europe’s financial crisis and the Greek tragedy may not be good news for those affected by them, but for the Brussels press corps, these events have helped keep their stories on or near the front page for several years, according to Gareth Harding, managing director of Clear Europe, a media consultancy company, and co-curator of a new book, Mapping Foreign Correspondence in Europe.

The book charts the major changes and challenges foreign correspondents face across Europe in the context of new media trends, the shifting political landscape in the European Union and the broader impact of the economic crisis on the industry.

“Print is still the king,” according to the book’s editor Georgios Terzis of Vesalius College (VUB), but online and cross-platform reporting are growing outlets for the foreign correspondents surveyed. The economic pinch can be seen in other trends observed in the book. Greater emphasis on generalists, travel budget cuts, and limited resources also affect the type and depth of coverage.

“Journalists say they are more prone to follow the official line and use think tanks or NGOs to get the other side of the story,” noted Terzis at the book launch. They lack resources, time and sometimes access to primary sources to check the story out. The journalists feel “kidnapped” by official sources, he added.

The mapping took two-and-a-half years to realise and involved a survey of more than a thousand foreign correspondents, hundreds of interviews and contributions from authors Europe-wide.

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK has the biggest press corps in Europe with some 1,700 registered foreign correspondents, followed by France (945), Belgium (931), Germany (729) and Spain (258). The industry is still predominantly a “boys’ club”, according to one journalist, and there has been a shift towards more single bureau offices with one correspondent wearing multiple hats, supplying content for print, online and social media channels, which is leading to increased pressure and stress.

In Brussels, despite what was purported in The Economist in 2010 (‘The incredible shrinking EU press corps’), the number of foreign correspondents accredited by the European Commission has remained quite stable in the decade following a ‘big bang’ expansion when 10 new member states joined in 2004.

“The single biggest problem is clearly economic,” noted the columnist Charlemagne. “The industry that has fed and clothed me for 12 years –being a full-time foreign correspondent – is in desperate straits everywhere. The internet has broken the link between news and advertising, establishing the idea that news as a commodity should be available for free.”

But while the EU press corps is not in “free fall”, as The Economist put it, there is some substance in the claims that new forms of online reporting, but also Belgian tax complications and the disconnect between traditional advertising and news have all hit the Brussels news business particularly hard. As too the suggestion that many, mostly older, member states have grown weary or just plain bored of the EU story unless – it should be added – it involves some sort of pain or grief that audiences in the more euro-sceptic  countries can ‘relate to’.

But the withdrawal of old Europe from the Brussels reporting bubble has not reduced the overall interest in Europe, nor its status as the new king of news and reporting, spearheaded by such outlets as the Financial Times and Der Spiegel. Terzis and Harding suggested correspondents from the former eastern countries and other regions, including China, have made up the numbers in Brussels, and where full-time posts have become rarer, the army of freelancers, bloggers and other ‘new’ journalists fill the gap.

Harding commented on some of these trends, including the growing pressure to publish or Tweet first and check later, the blurring of the line between reporting and opinion, and the need for more innovation and mashups in the sector.

Buzzfeed in the EU would shake things up, he concluded.

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Fiction: Us old guys

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“We never regret. Us old guys never regret.” They both chuckled and gave a nod of goodbye.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The old guy was watching me. I could feel it.

It was hotter than usual out, and we were looking for somewhere shady to kill some time before the Diakofto train. I bought a warm beer and Dave, my Canadian friend, took a cold coffee. I think he asked for it that way. I didn’t.

We chatted about this and that. The fig tree in Patras. The girls in Nafplion. The one he went home with and the one that I argued with near the port.

The wooden bench was so upright. It felt like waiting outside the Principal’s office with the teacher sitting opposite. I tried stretching out but I was feeling too self-conscious.

The old guy kept looking at me and I could swear he tittered when I told Dave about the hairy arms on the girl in Nafplion. I imagined that his woollen tam-o’-shanter (I think that’s what you call it) concealed a shiny sun-spotted head. His cat-like eyes followed movement and noises like a trained assassin.

He was joined by another well-worn old guy. The friend flicked the bobble on his cap as he sat down. Silent, they watched the people traffic … in stereo now. The hat was like an antenna that wobbled up and down when someone needed examining from top to toe or sideways as new sources of interest walked by.

“Dirty old coots,” I said to Dave.

He laughed. “You’ll be the same when you get to that age,” he said.

“We’ll never get to their age … we’ll be working till we drop to pay for them and everyone else here,” I said with unexpected vitriol.

I finished my warm beer and went for a cold coffee. Dave opted for a hot coffee. He was always one step ahead.

“What part of Australia do you come from?” I heard from behind as I waited to be served. It was old guy number one. Unusually good English, I thought.

“Um, I guess Melbourne,” I told him.

“I lived in Footscray for 30 years,” he said. “Colourful back then, but it was all we could afford when we got there in the 60s,” he added.

“I wish I bought in South Melbourne,” he winked. “Then I’d be laughing the other side!”

“Yeah, probably. Even Footscray has come along since then,” I told him. “It used to be total Romper Stomper, but it’s changing. The western suburbs are getting snazzier as young families move out there; it’s too expensive in the city and south-side.” I added in clearly way too much detail.

“Haven’t been back since years,” he said. “It’s a good life here with the Aussie pension … Not the same for everyone in Greece, though. Many people are not doing so well. It’s that bloody perestroika that’s making Greeks pay for everything!”

I laughed. In the meantime, Dave had started chatting to his own Greek émigré who had spent 20 years in Toronto and returned on a similar pension deal as my Greek.

“You know Ireland, Portugal and Spain are also going through this imposed austerity programme like Greece and they’re all clearing their debts. Why should Europe feel sorry for Greece? They had it good on EU money for decades. And now it’s time to pay their dues and Greeks just complain,” I immediately regretted pointing out.

“My friend …” he said slowly and patiently “you don’t know nothing about it here. I’ve seen how hard work can make you rich, in Melbourne, you know. I bought my house, I put my kids through school and university. They all got good jobs now, not dirty hands work like me. We left a broken Greece and came back to something better,” he gestured to his friend, or maybe towards the old steam engine near the depot.

“I tell you, young people want to work, and now look … they have to do what we did and start again somewhere else,” he continued, “But it’s not like it was for us.”

They can go to Germany or other places in Europe to work, he suggested, but everywhere is harder for younger people these days. He said something about the economic or social system favouring older generations. I got distracted by a small child teetering on the edge of the platform.

“You saying the baby-boomers rigged the system?” I came back.

“Yeess,” he slapped his thigh, “… the grey ones who got fat after the war and want to keep all their money. They make the system good for them not for the young ones,” stressing ‘young’ each time he said it. “They grew up hungry and they still think like hungry people. Me first!”

The Patras train had pulled in and people started gathering their things. I gestured to Dave that it was time to wind up our new friendships.

I slung my pack on and headed to the carriages. “Do you regret coming back?” I asked over my shoulder as I passed my Greek.

But it was the Canadian’s Greek who answered, as though he’d been having the same conversation: “We never regret. Us old guys never regret.” They both chuckled and gave a nod of goodbye.

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Romania’s myths, legends, warts and charms

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Romania defies many of the unflattering stereotypes associated with the country. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light.

Monday 17 November 2014

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

When I told people that I was going to Brașov and Bucharest, reactions varied from “be careful” and “nice girls” to “isn’t it just full of Gypsies?” and “where is that?” So I just said I’m visiting Dracula in Transylvania, and they just laughed. What did poor little Romania do to earn such scorn?

Don’t get me wrong, Bucharest and its environs have no shortage of forlorn grey buildings and decrepit streets that you would expect of the former Eastern bloc. But whereas East Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Riga, etc. have airbrushed out most remnants of that period with a post-EU makeover, Bucharest is still very much wrestling with its past.

A bit poorer than other former communist countries and with so much more ‘socialist development’ to undo – namely the widespread ‘systemisation’ of villages and towns across the country – much of Bucharest still evokes its communist past.

But that could be a blessing in disguise, if you think hard about it. Foreign investment and the rampant changes that big money brings to urban landscapes has been slower to arrive in Romania, and the complex legal wrangling over ownership of confiscated properties in what is left of the city’s old quarter has slowed the cancerous spread of cranes over Bucharest’s skyline.

Romania is also still not in the eurozone, and seems unlikely to be allowed to join for some time, despite promises to the contrary made in Brussels when the country joined the European Union in 2007.

For tourists this means two main things: Bucharest remains a relatively cheap European city trip, especially with low-cost airlines like Whizz and Ryanair now plying the route with some frequency; and it is a refreshingly authentic and richly diverse destination.

Why does authenticity matter? Well, if you travel often enough, you will know the answer to this question. European cities are all starting to look or feel a bit samey: the same chain coffee shops, strip malls lined with familiar clothes stores, the feeling that the medieval or Art Nouveau houses were finished by urban colourists.

So much slower to paint over its communist past, Bucharest is left with an opportunity to embrace the story, and what it means to modern Romania. It is a sensitive subject, no doubt, but hiding or glossing over the past is rarely a good recipe for thriving.

City planners could or perhaps should think about drawing a circle around that part of its recent history to mark the spot, as it were, where many memorable things happened. Yes, many bad things – deprivation, a systematic crushing of cultural identity and murderous actions – during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. But also ‘monumental’ things; legacies such as the building of the so-called ‘Popular House’ (more on that later) which dominates a massive swathe of the city centre, and the Parisian-styled boulevards the former dictator created may, after some decades of healing, become tourist beacons in the league of the Eiffel Tower, White House or Taj Mahal.

There are signs it may already be happening. I took an official tour of the Palace of Parliament – as it is now called after the Romanian government agonised as to what to do with this White Elephant following Ceaușescu’s downfall in a dramatic and bloody revolution in 1989 – and learned first-hand that embracing the past (it’s good and bad aspects) doesn’t come easy to some.

“It was cheaper to make it into the Parliament and use the building that so many Romanian craftsmen and women worked hard to build than pull it down,” the tour guide offered dryly in answer to the question of how Romanians now feel about this towering hulk of a building, knowing how it came into existence.

Touted as the second-biggest free-standing building in the world after the Pentagon, ‘Madman’s House’, as it is also referred to behind closed doors in Romania, covers a whole city block. Churches, hospitals and thousands of houses were demolished in the 1980s to make way for Ceaușescu’s monolithic ode to socialism, which to most who witnessed or ‘volunteered’ to build it spoke more to his and, perhaps more so, his wife’s megalomania.

In the nearly one-hour tour of the bowels of this 1,100-room monster, which only took in three of the reported 12 floors and just a small sample of the various halls, chambers and endless corridors, not once did the tour guide mention Ceaușescu’s name. Nor did she explain the backstory to the December 1989 uprising. This was an ‘official’ tour, and the guide was either careful not to discuss politics, as it were, in what is now the Houses of Parliament or she was just not very good at her job.

Intrigued by the probable side-stepping of the questions by our guide, it didn’t take much searching to learn that praising the crimes of “so-called totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims” is forbidden by law in Romania. So that would then apply to the Ceaușescu regime, I presume. Indeed, TV journalist Dinel Staicu reportedly received a hefty fine for praising Ceaușescu and airing pictures of the former leader.

Two sides

Not so careful was the guide on a private bus tour to Brașov in Romania’s central area, which is more famously known as Transylvania. The much younger, rather chirpy, guide (certainly for 7:45 am) breezily described the chain of events leading up to Ceaușescu’s ill-fated last speech on the Piata Victoriei, the ensuing riots, civilian deaths and eventual capture, two-hour trial and summary execution of Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989.

“That was Romania’s Christmas present that year,” said the guide. “Not many mourned the death of the second dictator, who made the first communist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej who died in 1965 seem like a nice guy!”

But Ceaușescu, who led Romania from 1967 to 1989, didn’t start out that bad, she went on to explain. He became increasingly erratic and distant from the people during his decades-long rule. Something many Romanians blamed on Elena and their lack of education.

The fact that they both came from very humble beginnings gave them a common touch to begin with but that changed as Ceaușescu’s personality cult grew. He gave himself such titles as ‘Conducător’ (Leader) and ‘Geniul din Carpați’ (The genius of the Carpathians), and by the time they returned from a visit to North Korea, witnessing the grandiose avenues of Pyongyang and the socialist-inspired urban landscapes, there was no stopping them … well, almost.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

The other figure in Romanian history with an equally complicated back-story is that of Vlad Țepeș (1431-1477), alias Vlad the Impaler and inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula. A story so convoluted by folktales, legend, stories of witchcraft, eerie castles, fictional characters and a grain of truth, Vlad Țepeș is a larger-than-life character in Romanian history. But with the benefit of romantic hindsight, and a growing understanding of the bankability of such stories, Romanians clearly more easily embrace some parts of history better than others.

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, is being celebrated this year as Romania’s great protector and unifier following his bloody campaign (neatly rounded to) 555 years  ago to rid Wallachia and surrounding territories of the Ottoman Turks. Vlad was born in Sighișoara, a city on the Târnava Mare River, and raised in Târgoviște in south-central Romania, together with his brother and father, Vlad II Dracul(ea), who was Voivode of Wallachia – now a province of Romania, with Bucharest at its centre.

Time to settle once and for all the confusion between Vlad the Impaler and Dracula: The castle that hordes of tourists see in Bran, just south of Brașov, is not Vlad’s castle. It may not have even been the castle Bram Stoker had in mind when he wrote Dracula in the 19th century, as the Irish author apparently never visited the area, but rather concocted his story from a heady blend of geographical facts, patronymic borrowings (his father was a member of the Order of Dragons, or ‘drac’ and ‘ulea’, meaning ‘son of’) and regional mythology.

“In Romania today, schoolbooks and historians extol [Vlad Țepeș] as a patriot and a champion of order in lawless times, while the outside world knows him as the vampire count of a thousand cinematic fantasies … a spoof figure or a ghoul,” write Rough Guide Romania’s authors. “Horrible though his deeds were, Vlad was not accused of vampirism during his lifetime. However, vampires were an integral part of folklore in Eastern and South-eastern Europe, known as vámpír in Hungarian and strigoi in Romanian.”

Some attribute the ‘vampire’ phenomenon to regional folklore concerning a ‘flying one’ or Zburator who enters people’s homes and tortures young women coming of age with bites, pinches, tickling and worse. There are also tales of vampire-like behaviour in battle, with a victor ‘tasting’ a victim’s blood to take in his power. “Even to this day, some villagers in Romania are known to encircle their houses in salt and put up garlic against evil spirits,” our guide offers with a wry smile.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 work, which taking bits and pieces of fact and fiction, managed to stoke (sorry about that!) the imagination of a growing reading population (this is before film and TV) who were gripped with excitement and fear over such real stories as Jack the Ripper in London. Anyway, it makes for a good story and even better source of business for a nascent tourism industry.

Gypsies and sleaze

I have yet to address the other two stereotypes thrown up at the mention of Romania. On the bus to Brașov, the guide asked the dozen or so travellers what their impressions of Romania were before coming to the country.

The Israelis sitting nearest the door said “attractive girls and casinos” without blushing in the slightest. Some Americans – no sorry, they said “we’re from San Francisco” like it was a country – said they had heard of Vlad and Transylvania with a hint of embarrassment. The Italians and Spanish said they connected Romania mostly with Gypsies. I said rather pompously, as a resident of Brussels, most of my impressions were about Romania’s entry into the European Union and the “Roma question”, thinking the politically correct term would be appreciated. Nope.

The tour guide nodded thoughtfully and quick as a whip said, “So, more Gypsy stereotypes!” She went on to explain where the Romani came from and touched on the complicated relationship Romania has with a community that numbers between 650,000 and 850,000 people, depending on who you consult. Faced with discrimination both at home and abroad, many Romani do not declare their ethnicity in the official census and often don’t carry or own identity cards or birth certificates.

Upon joining the EU, many hoped that the plight of this minority in Romania and elsewhere in the expanding EU would improve. Despite vast programmes, and funding for worthy projects aimed at education, skills and ‘inclusion’ – through the likes of the European Social Fund – evidence of continued high levels of discrimination remain. Progress in Romania itself seems to take the back-burner to wider efforts to spruce up the economy (and the streets of the capital, it has been suggested!).

The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that she regretted her country’s reputation is hurt by its association with the Romani, and the challenges they present to what is effectively a developing country in Europe’s midst.

Wisely, she made no mention of mass deportations, periods of slavery and other privations throughout the centuries that the Romani have lived in the land now called Romania. Alas, it was a trip to visit pretty towns and Dracula’s castle not a debate on the ‘Roma question’, but I was pleased to have gotten as much information as I did from such a trip.

Taxi drivers were more forthcoming about politics and sleaze – and for many a formative impression on the tourists by ripping them off during the trip from the airport to Bucharest. My driver when leaving the country – a friendly and open fellow, as almost all contacts in Romania had been – said he had been driving taxis for 16 years and despite clear improvements in everything from the roads to the ‘luxuries’ in the shops, he felt his chances of getting ahead were slim.

“It’s the rule of the first seven years,” he offered philosophically. “It gives all the chances later.” So, that’s the foundation for success in Romania, I paraphrased. “Yes, the foundations, as you say; the rich ones have the sports cars and think it is their right to be like they want to workers; they have power.”

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

I asked him, then, if he will be voting for the socialist candidate in the election the following week (15-16 November). “No, he will destroy us … like the first socialist we got after Ceaușescu!”

That was frank, I thought to myself. So it seems the economically liberal PNL party headed by an up-and-coming city mayor Klaus Iohannis of the Christian Liberal Alliance would be his preferred presidential candidate over current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who is leader of the Social Democratic Party.

“So, Iohannis is the better choice,” I offered. The driver looked in the rear-view mirror, raised his eyebrow and said, “Yes, better, not best … but I will vote for him.”

Go-go gone?

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

And as to the suggestion of cheap liaisons in smoky pubs and go-go clubs. Well, I admit I had imagined something like Prague or Budapest, but the historic quarter, which is the main tourist hub (the bit that was spared Ceaușescu’s socialist revisionism) had only a smattering of such joints. I was approached once on my second night by the stereotypical black-leather jacketed guy offering girls and more, but that was it. Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg … these are more sordid cities than Bucharest.

I never felt intimidated by anyone. The metro, though bleak, was by no means scary. The trains ran on time and the information boards were clear. Romanians respected your space but were happy to help when approached. They didn’t tout for business or force conversations on you. They were getting on with life, as it should be.

Altogether, Romania defied many if not all of the obvious stereotypes. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light. It is definitely a tourist destination on the up, and it deserves a ‘better’ rap, if the not the ‘best’ rap.

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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De lijm die België bijeenhoudt

 
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By Khaled Diab

De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is. Ik gebruik mijn stem als lijm die kan helpen om België samen te houden.

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De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is.

Zondag 25 mei 2014

In de aanloop naar de Wereldbeker in Brazilië heeft de voetbalgekte België in haar greep, merkte ik onlangs tijdens een bezoek naar ons huis in Gent. De Rode Duivels, de beste ploeg sinds een generatie, lijken alomtegenwoordig: in de media, in uitverkochte stickeralbums en zelfs in een campagne van het Rode Kruis om bloedgevers te werven. In een land dat normaal een hekel heeft aan vlagvertoon is de nationale driekleur in haar voetbalversie overal te zien en worden zwart, geel en rood op wangen gesmeerd en in pruiken geverfd.

Maar achter die opwelling van nationale trots gaat een andere realiteit schuil: het lijkt meer dan waarschijnlijk dat de regionale, federale en Europese verkiezingen van 25 mei zullen tonen dat België in feite twee aparte staten is geworden.

Bedreigde Brusselaar
De verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen uiten zich in de politiek, de cultuur, de identiteit en het bewustzijn – of toch op het eerste gezicht. De peilingen voorspellen dat in Vlaanderen de neoliberale, separatistische N-VA een derde van de stemmen zal halen. Andersom zou in Wallonië de linkse PS een derde van de stemmen krijgen en de grootste partij zijn.

Los van de ogenschijnlijke rechts-linkse tegenstelling tussen het welvarende noorden en het arme zuiden, is er de taalkloof. België heeft al sinds tientallen jaren geen nationale partijen of nationale media. Ook het onderwijs is geregionaliseerd. Dat alles heeft de vervreemding en het wantrouwen tussen de gemeenschappen in de hand gewerkt.

Dit geleidelijke vervagen van ‘België’ wordt symbolisch belichaamd door de bedreigde status van de meest typische Belg: de tweetalige Brusselaar, met één voet aan elke kant van de taalgrens. Vandaag is Brussel nog altijd officieel tweetalig, maar spreekt bijna iedereen Frans en vormen de Nederlandstaligen een kleine minderheid. Buiten Brussel wordt het Engels een officieuze lingua franca voor zowel Vlamingen als Walen.

Als genaturaliseerde burger die al bijna tien jaar Belg is, vind ik die trage ontbinding jammer – voor een stuk omdat ik de excentrieke charme waardeer van een land dat ondanks zijn saaie reputatie op een subtiele manier cool is. Voor iemand als ik, die uit de immigratie komt, is het bovendien vaak gemakkelijker om je als Belg te identificeren, wat niet dezelfde etnische bagage heeft als ‘Vlaming’ of ‘Waal’. Tweederde van de Brusselse bevolking is trouwens van buitenlandse afkomst, zodat de etnische aanblik van de hoofdstad sterk is veranderd. Je ziet dat ook op het voetbalveld, met spelers als de Congolees-Belgische Vincent Kompany. Hij spreekt even vloeiend Nederlands als Frans, is aanvoerder van het nationale elftal en bovendien een figuur die de gemeenschappen samenbrengt.

Er wordt vaak gegrapt dat Belgen alleen in het buitenland een gezamenlijk nationaal gevoel hebben, als ambassadeurs van hun nationale tradities (meer bepaald bier en chocola, die tot de beste van de wereld behoren). En veel Belgen die ik ken, hebben zich verzoend met het vooruitzicht dat ze hun land zullen overleven, in de veronderstelling dat het zich in afzonderlijke soevereine staten zal splitsen. Anderzijds blijkt uit peilingen dat in de twee gemeenschappen een grote meerderheid België intact wil houden, ondanks het gekibbel tussen de politieke klassen van de gewesten.

Bovendien is de politieke kloof tussen Vlaanderen en Wallonië wel heel goed zichtbaar, maar bleek uit een recente peiling van de VRT dat de meeste Belgische kiezers min of meer dezelfde politieke standpunten en meningen delen. “Je hebt een vergrootglas nodig om de verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen te zien als het over de sociaaleconomische problematiek gaat, de ethische vraagstukken, de immigratie of het milieu”, zegt politiek wetenschapper en columnist Dave Sinardet. Dat zal geen verrassing zijn voor wie in de twee gemeenschappen heeft geleefd. Ik denk al lang dat de Vlamingen en de Walen meer met elkaar gemeen hebben dan met respectievelijk de Nederlanders en de Fransen, die met argwaan worden bekeken.

Stem als lijm
Een van de karaktertrekken die Vlamingen en Walen delen, is een zwak voor het ‘Belgisch compromis’, een ingewikkelde manier om problemen op te lossen waarbij alle partijen iets krijgen maar ook toegevingen doen, zodat er geen winnaar maar ook geen verliezer is. De jongste jaren heeft die politieke kunstvorm minder succes dan vroeger, maar ze heeft er wel voor gezorgd dat een conflict dat al meer dan een eeuw oud is nooit tot geweld heeft geleid.

Deze Belg zal dan ook op zondag zijn stem niet alleen gebruiken als een beetje lijm dat kan helpen om België samen te houden, maar ook als een blijk van vertrouwen in de multiculturele toekomst en de verdraagzaamheid van dit land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article appeared in De Morgen on 21 May 2014. It was originally published in the New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Glueing Belgium back together one vote at a time

 
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By Khaled Diab

With Belgium little more than a hollow shell, I’ll be using my vote as a squirt of glue to help hold the collapsing country together.

Friday 23 May 2014

Equipped with the best team in a generation, soccer mania has infected Belgium in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, as I witnessed during a recent visit home. The Red Devils, as the national side is known locally, seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sold-out sticker albums, and even a Red Cross blood donation campaign.

In a country where flag-waving is generally anathema, the soccer version of the national banner is everywhere and the national colours — black, yellow and red — are smeared on cheeks or dyed into wigs.

But the red devil, as always, is in the detail. Despite the apparent surge in national pride, the forthcoming regional, federal and EU elections, which will be held on 25 May, highlight the reality that Belgium has, in effect, become two separate states.

The divisions separating Dutch-speaking Flanders from Francophone Wallonia extend to politics, culture, identity and consciousness – at least at first sight.

In Dutch-speaking Flanders, which has long had a fractured political landscape, polls forecast that the neo-liberal, secessionist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) will top the ballot with a third of the vote. In contrast, in Francophone Wallonia, it is the leftist Parti Socialiste (PS) which is likely to walk away with a third of the vote, putting it in first place.

Over and above the apparent right-left split between the north and south, there is the perennial linguistic chasm, which is deepened by the parallel and separate socio-economic realities in which the regions exist.

In addition to the economic gap between the prosperous north and the struggling south, Belgium has not had national parties or national media for decades, while education too has been regionalised. This has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts, and a rise in relative ignorance, distrust and even demonisation.

This gradual fading of “Belgium” is perhaps most symbolically embodied in the endangered status of the quintessential Belgian, the bilingual Bruxellois/Brusselaar, who firmly had one foot on each side of the language frontier.

Today, though Brussels remains officially bilingual, its residents are mostly Francophone, with a minority of Dutch speakers. Beyond Brussels, English is increasingly becoming the second language of choice for Flemings and Walloons alike, making it an unofficial social and business lingua franca.

As a naturalized citizen who has been a Belgian for nearly a decade now, I find this slow disintegration to be a terrible shame. This is partly because I appreciate the eccentric and understated appeal of this country with a dull reputation but an understatedly cool reality.

Moreover, for people like me of immigrant background, it is often easier and less troublesome to identify as “Belgian” because it does not carry the same ethnic baggage that Flemish or Walloon does.

Like “British” is a more neutral label than English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, Belgian is better suited to minorities. In fact, with some two-thirds of the population of Brussels of foreign origin (including European), the ethnic complexion of the bilingual Brusselaar/Bruxellois — and, hence, quintessential, Belgian — has rapidly shifted.

This is exemplified on the soccer pitch, among other places. Take, for example,  Congolese-Belgian footballer Vincent Kompany, the captain of the national squad. Equally at home in both Dutch and French, he not only plays for the national side but acts as a unifying figure between the country’s bickering communities, both of whom are proud of the success he has found in England, including two English Premier League titles for Manchester City in 2013/14 and 2011/12.

Although many Belgians I know have reconciled themselves to the prospect that they will outlive their country, I don’t think we should condemn Belgium to the dustbin of future history just yet.

Wits have joked that Belgians only feel a sense of shared nationhood when abroad, where they become ambassadors or even missionaries for the finer aspects of the national lifestyle, from probably the world’s best beer and chocolate to the country’s fine cuisine and music.

In Jerusalem, where I am currently based, I have found that there is more than a grain of truth to this. Amongst the surprisingly large Belgian community here, there is a shared sense of kinship, camaraderie and solidarity between Walloons and Flemings – albeit a typically understated and pragmatic Belgian variety.

While this may have something to do with the more open-minded and inclusive nature of being an expat, it strikes me that many back home share similar sentiments. Surveys regularly show that clear majorities on both sides want Belgium to survive, despite the Byzantine bickering of the political class.

Moreover, despite the visible political divergence between Flanders and Wallonnia, a recent survey conducted by VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster, revealed that the majority of Belgian voters have similar political positions and views. “Whether it relates to socioeconomic, ethical, immigration or environmental issues, you need a magnifying glass to see the difference between Flemings and Walloons,” concluded the columnist and political scientist Dave Sinardet.

And this would come as no surprise for anyone who has actually lived among the two communities. Equipped with the perspective of the relative outsider, I have long held that Flemings and Walloons have more in common with one another than they do with the French or the Dutch, both of whom are viewed with suspicion due to their colonial history in Belgium.

One characteristics which both Flemings and Walloons share is their penchant to strike “Belgian compromises”, a form of settlement by which all sides concede something in return for something else, creating a complex web of gains and losses in which there is no victor or vanquished. Although this political art form has had a lower success rate in recent years, it has ensured that this conflict of more than a century has never erupted into violence, nor captured international headlines, except in the surreal.

Come election day, this Belgian, for one, will use his ballot not only as a small squirt of glue to help hold Belgium together, but also as a vote of confidence in its multicultural future and capacity for tolerance.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A condensed version of this article first appeared in The New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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