On the high-tech path to destruction

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than humans becoming enslaved by robots, machines have become the new slave or serf class, with devastating consequences for society and the environment. We desperately need a more humane and sustainable approach to automation.
Max Headroom

Monday 23 November 2020

In the mid-1980s, Max Headroom, a TV personality with a zany sense of stuttering satire, was possibly the world’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) superstar. Back then, of course, computer technology was not yet up to this mammoth task and the intelligence behind this hilarious parody was very much human, as was the actor, Matt Frewer.

In a way, we have not only reached but exceeded the dystopian-utopian future foreshadowed by Max Headroom. However, instead of our lives being dominated by advertising-mad TV corporations, they are being overwhelmed by advertising-mad social media corporations that monitor and record the minutiae of our behaviour.

Moreover, technology has advanced so much over the past 35 years that instead of a human convincingly playing a machine, we now have machines convincingly acting like humans – so much so that we can create entire computer-generated worlds and characters.

The once unthinkable advances in computing power, robotics and AI have enormous implications for society, not just in the future but in the present. Although we are still some way off from humans becoming obsolete, much of human labour has already become surplus to requirements.

A visible example of this is the (almost) workerless factory (known as ‘lights-out manufacturing). Whereas a couple of generations ago, a typical factory would employ hundreds if not thousands of workers, today, many manufacturing facilities are more or less completely automated.

One futuristic factory in Japan behaves like some form of robotic womb, using robots to build robots without the need for human intervention. Bur rather than being located in the distant science fiction future, this facility exists in the science fact present and recent past.

While full automation is relatively rare, partial automation is everywhere. And this is not just the case for agriculture and manufacturing. The service sector, which has long been viewed as the place where new jobs would be created, is also falling prey to automation.

This is reflected in the diminishing number of service sector workers required to generate wealth. In the 1960s, telecoms giant AT&T was worth $267 billion in today’s money and employed three quarters of a million people. Google, in contrast, is worth considerably more ($370 billion) but employs far fewer humans, only about 55,000.

These innovations have brought some undoubted benefits. This is reflected, for example, in how, during the coronavirus lockdowns, millions were able to switch to working from home and people with broadband access were still able to connect socially while distancing physically. But these are the fortunate ones.

At their best, new technologies work in synergy with humans, freeing us from drudgery and bolstering our mental capabilities. At their worst, they force us to behave more like machines in order to compete with them and keep our jobs.

However, with the way our economies are currently structured, the fruits of automated labour have largely gone to multinational corporations, their shareholders and top executives – the feudal class of the information age.

Unlike in a dystopian science fiction novel or movie, humans have not become enslaved by robot masters. Rather, high-tech machines are the new slave or serf class. Moreover, they work relentlessly, accurately and obediently without needing sleep, paid holidays, health insurance or organised unions. No wonder they are so loved by their masters.

And the day is possibly not far off when describing machines as “slaves” or “serfs” will no longer be hyperbole, as artificial intelligence morphs and evolves into artificial consciousness, which would have far-reaching ethical implications.

The working classes (i.e. people who rely on their labour), from factory workers to middle-class professionals, have seen their status corroded, with a growing number unable to find work or forced to labour under deteriorating conditions.

This process has been a long time coming and warnings about how the “cybernation” of our economies would create “a permanent impoverished and jobless class” date back to at least the 1960s.

It is a testament to the genius of new technologies and their proponents that the worsening economic situation and prospects of ordinary people have triggered far more xenophobia than technophobia, with people blaming migrants and foreign workers for stealing their jobs, welfare and status.

Socially, the destructive dimension of automation has reached a point where it often seems to outweigh the constructive potential. The widening gap between the productivity of capital and labour, along with deregulation and tax avoidance by the super-rich, have led to a devastating chasm between the haves and have-nots, fomenting popular unrest and social conflict.

Thanks to unprecedented technological progress, income and wealth inequalities today appear to be higher than they have been at any time in human history, even if the material wealth of the poor has risen.

With us primed to see the green potential of new technologies, one underappreciated and overlooked aspect of high-paced automation is its devastating environmental impact, which looks likely to multiply in the future.

Today’s economy produces massively more per unit of human labour than ever before, which leads to enormous levels of overproduction, even if each individual item is produced more efficiently.

Keeping people in work or creating new jobs means that this overproduction needs to be matched by an equivalent level of overconsumption. This overcapacity is a major factor behind our shift to the contemporary throwaway, disposable culture.

Moreover, new technological tools and automation have become such an integral part of modern labour that the ecological footprint of work has skyrocketed. This is also visible, paradoxically, in the most ancient of jobs, farming. For example, although agriculture only employs about 4% of the European labour force, it accounts for about a tenth of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Little wonder, then, that a growing body of research indicates that shortening the working week would be good not only for workers’ health and wellbeing but also that of the environment. Shaving a day off our working week would reduce our carbon footprint by as much as 30%, according to one study that is almost a decade old.

The above is not an argument for technophobia, but a plea for techno-realism. To gain the maximum benefit for humanity from technological progress, we must move beyond the narrow focus on economics and profit maximisation and look at the wider social and environmental picture.

No major new technology should be rolled out before a thorough social, environmental and ethical assessment has found that its potential benefits will outweigh its costs. Some sectors, especially areas where human contact brings with it intangible social and emotional benefits, could be partially de-automated to preserve and create jobs and reduce alienation.

More fundamentally, the fruits of automation urgently need to be better and more evenly distributed. This can be accomplished through truly progressive taxation, taxing capital at a higher rate than labour and introducing such schemes as a universal basic income for everyone.

In the throes of the Great Depression, the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes, in an essay titled ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, cast aside the economic pessimism of the time and predicted that within a century we had the potential to inverse our working life, with two days of work and a five-day weekend, or three-hour daily shifts of work.

The fact that this reality has not yet come to bear, nearly 90 years after Keynes predicted it, is not due to a failure in his foresight but to our collective failure of imagination and our failure to exploit our economic bounty for the good of all.

“There is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” Keynes presciently foretold.

It is high time that our societies overcame this dread and that we collectively strive to enjoy our unprecedented material abundance through the pursuit of happiness for the many rather than the pursuit of unfathomable wealth for the few.

_________

This article was first published by Al Jazeera on 16 November 2020.

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Trump is terrible but Europe and the Middle East have racism too

 
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By Khaled Diab

Outside America, Donald Trump has provoked near universal outrage and dismay. However, Europeans and Middle Easterners must not forget the racism closer to home.
Photo: Peg Hunter, Flickr

5 November 2020

Millions of non-Americans around the world have been following the drama of the US presidential elections with mounting alarm. Even though it looks like Joe Biden will achieve a narrow victory at the polls, it is clear that Donald Trump, who is unlikely to accept loss, enjoys the support of almost half the country, despite his incompetence, corruption, authoritarianism and his administration’s overt racism.

That overt fascism has infected the highest office in the land and the most powerful political position in the world, empowering racists across America to come out into the open, has, for the past four years, triggered fear and concern internationally.

Moreover, the shocking death of George Floyd under the crushing knee of police brutality and racism led the Black Lives Matter movement to spill over outside the United States.

Europe’s race to the bottom

As we Europeans gaze in dismay across the Atlantic at the generations of racism and discrimination that brought the United States to this sorry impasse, we must not, tempting as it seems, believe we are somehow immune.

This panel discussion, in which Khaled Diab participated, explored the differences and similarities between America and Europe when it comes to racism.

Racism is a major and growing challenge in Europe, although the scale and nature of the problem varies widely. It is reflected in the rise of far-right parties, including the openly fascistic, burgeoning anti-minority and refugee sentiment, a growing wave of racially-motivated crimes, with widescale under-reporting of racial harassment and violence, and an alarming rise in violent, neo-Nazi and white-supremacist extremism.

This partly explains why the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated so much in Europe. Beyond the natural human urge to express solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed, events across the Atlantic have thrown into sharp focus the bigotry and discrimination in our own societies.

Although the scale and seriousness differ, barely a country in Europe does not have a problem of racism towards one minority or another: Muslims, Jews, migrants, refugees, immigrants, etc. Perhaps the most marginalised minority in Europe are the Roma, who are sidelined and quite literally pushed to the wastelands wherever they are.

The continent is also riddled with far-right nativist movements of varying sizes and influence. Some even pride themselves, whether rightly or wrongly, as being trailblazers for Donald Trump and America’s Alt-Right, such as the Front National in France.

Gerolf Annemans, one of the leading lights of Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok), wa son TV during the US election boasting about how his conviction that his party had delivered a similar shock to the system in Belgium as Trump had in America.

Many came out to protest against racism, police brutality and the legacy of slavery in their own societies. While Europe prides itself on having led the global charge to abolish slavery in the 19th century, European nations profited immensely from the slave trade and from trading in the products created using slave labour, such as sugar, tobacco, cotton and rubber.

This legacy is even glorified in some public spaces, which became targets for protesters, such as the infamous statue of the British slave trader Edward Colston toppled in Bristol. In Belgium, a long-raging debate over what to do with the monuments commemorating King Leopold II, who caused millions of deaths in the deceptively named Congo Free State –which he personally owned and ran as his private, de facto slave colony –reached a climax with the defacementvandalisation and removal of his statues across the country.

Cops as robbers

In the Middle East, we are all too familiar with the menacing spectre of police violence. In our part of the world, the police are often more violent and crueller than even the most hardened criminal gangs. In fact, our police forces are often indistinguishable from criminal gangs.

We are also familiar with how police brutality can rouse protest, unrest, uprisings and even revolutions. In Egypt, a Facebook group set up to protest the cruel and brutal murder by police outside an internet cafe in Alexandria of Khaled Said, who had the credentials of the quintessential boy next door, played a pivotal role in the 2011 attempted revolution.

The date young activists selected to kick off their revolution was National Police Day, which celebrated a distant day when the police were on the side of the people, against the British occupier of Egypt. Rather than honouring the police, as the state would have preferred, Egyptians flooded out in their millions to protest a brutal regime and its loyal and violent lapdogs, the police and state security.

Police brutality has played a major role in political unrest and upheaval across the region, from the Ba’athist Room 101-style dungeons of Iraq and Syria, to the Gaddafi regime’s unhinged and wanton cruelty.

Unlike in the United States, police brutality in the region is more often connected to class and politics than race, though ethnicity does play a role in places like Israel and Palestine, Iraq or Bahrain.

Victims and perpetrators

That is not to say that racism does not exist in the region. Contrary to what many Arabs and other victims of prejudice believe, being subjected to racism from others does not automatically inoculate you against this form of discrimination.

Like in the West and many other parts of the world, anti-black racism is common in the Middle East, even in Israel, where Ethiopian Jews are the most marginalised and discriminated against Jewish communities in the country.

Although Arab identity is founded on language rather than ethnicity and race, it is not as colour blind as many Arabs would like to believe. This is reflected in superiority towards black Africans but also in the condescending attitudes towards black Arabs and the discrimination many face.

Although black Arabs exist and have always existed, not only in North Africa but also in the Levant and the Gulf, many Arabs do not believe in their existence or are not convinced that they are truly compatriots, which is the cause of endless frustration and pain to black Arabs I know. To add insult to injury, black Arabs are often colloquially referred to as “abid” (“slaves”).

Moreover, black African member states of the Arab League, such as Sudan, Somalia and Mauritania, are widely regarded as not being truly Arab, and this has a lot to do with skin tone.

It may not be formally codified but skin tone carries weighty social significance and is the subject of serious prejudice in the Arab world. People with paler skin are widely considered to be more beautiful, more desirable, more sophisticated and of higher social standing than their darker compatriots. This helps explain the popularity of toxic skin-bleaching products.

By creating a transnational identity to which to aspire, pan-Arabism helped challenge and even end certain forms of traditional tribal and national prejudice and discrimination. However, it also created new forms.

In its bid to create a unifying identity for an incredibly diverse region, pan-Arabism not only ignored or flattened national differences, it also left little room over for non-Arabic-speaking minorities or groups unwilling to identify as Arab. Notable victims of this form of discrimination were the Kurds in Iraq and Syria and the Berber populations of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Piety and prejudice

Following George Floyd’s murder, I noticed numerous Muslims claiming that there is no racism in Islam. But does this assertion hold up to the cold light of scrutiny? I do not believe so.

It is true that Islam does not discriminate according to skin colour and there is a theoretical equality between believers. However, those left outside the gates of the Umma are discriminated against.

Even at times and places in Islamic history when minorities have flourished, they were still regarded and treated as being inferior to Muslims. In bad times, religious minorities, including Christians and Jews, were actively persecuted.

Even within the community of believers, equality has more often been aspirational than actual. From the dawn of Islam, Arabians, especially the Querish tribe, were considered superior to other Muslims, which explains why so many Muslims in Asia and Africa claim descent from the Arabs.

Even today, with the Arab world in disarray and dysfunction, there are Arabs, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, who have the gall to consider themselves superior to non-Arab Muslims.

This is not to downplay or deny the very real racism that Arabs and Muslims must endure. This is very real and very toxic, as I have experienced and witnessed on too many occasions.

However, though we would like to believe that people who suffer a crime do not commit it, it is possible to be both a victim and perpetrator of prejudice. Moreover, if Arabs and Muslims wish Europeans and Americans to take racism seriously, they must also work to tackle and eradicate prejudice in their own societies.

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My fellow Americans, socialism is not an insult

 
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By Rebekah Crawford

I may never be able to convince a Trump voter not to vote for Trump, but I can tell them what it’s like for an American to live with “socialist” healthcare and education in Europe.

Image: Michael Vadon, Flickr

Friday 23 October 2020

“If you vote for Biden, you vote for socialism/the radical left”. This seems to be the scare tactic Republicans are using as they desperately fight to keep their incumbent president seated.

And like clockwork, Democrats twist and turn, trying to avoid being pinned with the campaign killing “socialist” label. Only Bernie Sanders has the actual chutzpah to proudly accept his policy proposals as socialist

Trump Makes The Case For Universal Health Care

Health care for all is not radical. It exists all over the bloody world. What we are doing now—where people don’t have health insurance because they have a bad job or are unemployed—that is crazy stuff.

Posted by Bernie Sanders on Saturday, October 10, 2020

In support of his daddy’s campaign, Donald Trump Jr is bravely leading a “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour in Florida.

Tweets by President Trump portray Biden as weak on socialism (and those are just the polite ones). Or they accuse Democrats of plotting to turn the United States into a SOCIALIST NATION, firing up his base with angry denouncements of the radical left and how they’re not going to let that happen in the good old US of A.

I may never be able to convince a Trump voter not to vote for Trump, but maybe I can shed some light on what it’s like to live in a “socialist” (cue scary music) democracy. Almost 18 years ago, I left my home state of California for Belgium and what I found surprised me.

Aside from the near constant rain and grey skies of Brussels, we live so well in Europe – so much better than in America. Yes, better than in America. Not only because the food is of higher quality, the prices of almost everything are lower or because it’s easy to hop on a plane and within an hour or two arrive some place where they speak a different language, like Barcelona or Berlin. It is superior because almost every single country in Europe provides universal services like healthcare, education, paid maternity leave, and care for the elderly, unemployed, and children.

Before I moved from Los Angeles to Brussels at the age of 33, I had almost never seen a doctor. So my first order of business, even before treating myself to frites and chocolate, was splurging on private health insurance. I met with an insurance broker, a pale, bespectacled young man, who made some calculations and determined the best plan for me, a young woman with no prior health issues, was a hospitalisation plan.

The cost?

Sixty dollars a month. Barely able to contain my glee ($60/month!!!?), I casually asked what exactly this would cover. He read from a list –100% reimbursement of hospitalisation costs, year-round reimbursement of medical costs for 30 serious illnesses, coverage before, during and after hospitalisation, yadda, yadda, yadda, up to $12,000. I slammed back down to earth. Ouch. That wouldn’t even cover one night in a hospital, I complained bitterly.

He looked at me in utter bewilderment. “I really can’t think of any treatment that would cost over $12,000,” he said.

I rattled off a number of diseases that could easily surpass $12,000: multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, pneumonia, a busted collar bone, a baby, the common cold. Again, he shook his head. Spending over $12,000 on healthcare was beyond his mental capacity. For a further $50 a month, I could also have all of my doctor’s visits and prescription drugs covered but he determined that wasn’t necessary for me.

I tested his theory a few years later when I delivered my first born. I spent five days, as is customary in Belgium, in a private hospital room with round the clock care. If, at 3am I couldn’t get my baby to latch on, I had simply to push a button and a nurse came to my aid. A physical therapist worked with me daily to strengthen my pelvic floor and a pediatrician checked and weighed the baby every morning.

The five-day stay, including the epidural, came to $3,000. My insurance covered all of it. If I had gone to a public university hospital, it would have only cost $500. At those prices, I practically didn’t need insurance. And after all that, I still had four months paid maternity leave.

I am now a Belgian citizen, which means I have universal healthcare or the “mutuelle” as it is called. A doctor’s visit costs anywhere from $40 to $95 and the mutuelle will cover about 75%. A short visit to a doctor in California starts at $150.00. The mutuelle also gives me $355 a month to help cover the costs of my two children.

Why?

I dare not ask.

The nagging fear I used to live with about my fate should I ever get sick is gone and, with it, an enormous weight. I know that if any illness befalls my children or me, we will receive the best care. And it makes me feel good knowing that all of my compatriots receive proper healthcare too, even the poorest. It’s hard enough being poor, without the additional worry of what to do if you fall sick.

Part of why healthcare costs are so low is because while doctors make a very good living, they don’t make an outrageous living. Most people in Belgium don’t. If they do, they are taxed (Belgians are among the highest taxed people in the world, though tax dodging is a problem).

This might sound like cruel and unusual punishment but not if you remember that a doctor or lawyer or similar professional earns their degree without the burden of debt. School, which begins as soon as a child is potty-trained, is free. If my children decide to go to university and become doctors and lawyers, it will be free for them as well.

When Americans spit out the word “socialism” as if it were a racial slur, I wonder what system they are so adamantly against. Where do they get their information about what it is like to live in a country that provides universal healthcare, free education and access to public services? Why is access to affordable healthcare and education un-American or un-democratic? Because the money you contribute might pay for someone else’s broken hip?

I love America and there are times when I miss it keenly. But I would never move back. When I visit my friends, I am envious for about two days at the size of their paychecks. When I see how much of that money goes towards education, childcare and healthcare and the underlying stress they live with lest one of those expenses unexpectedly skyrocket, my envy is tempered.

They might make more money and pay fewer taxes, but they don’t see their kids as much and summer vacation, which is not part of the American employee culture, is plotted secretively behind closed doors, as if they were planning the next great bank heist. In Europe, not only is it expected that people go on holiday, they are literally paid to go on holiday. Belgians receive paid holidays and a 13 month of salary.

Whenever I see my American friends who live in Belgium, we always acknowledge how much luckier we are to live in Europe. Our children go to fantastic schools for free, we have no worries or stress about healthcare, and nobody thinks any less of you because you’re openly planning to spend two weeks on a Greek island in July.

So Democrats, the next time you’re accused of being socialist, own it. Stop wiggling and squirming and take it as a compliment, with pride. Educate them on what socialism is and reframe it as a positive accolade, not a nasty insult. Remember, they’re most likely confusing it with that other dreaded bogeyman – communism.

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Moria and the smouldering ruins of Europe’s humanity

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek in Lesbos

The refugees and migrants who survived the fire at the Moria camp in Lesbos find themselves in an even worse predicament as authorities repeat the same dire mistakes.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Thursday 8 October 2020

Safia R (not her real name), 17, from Afghanistan, was afraid: afraid for her future, her physical integrity, her ailing mother and her 12-year-old brother. After living on the streets and in the nearby forests following the devastating fire at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, her family was forced to enter Kara Tepe, the replacement camp hastily constructed overnight on a former military shooting range still riddled with bullets.

“On 9 September, at around two in the morning, I was woken up by the screaming of my neighbours,” Safia recounted, her voice trembling. “They were banging on our container and screaming that a severe fire had broken out. They said we should just drop everything and run.”

It was traumatic for her to recall how the Moria camp, the symbol of Europe’s thoroughly dehumanising (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies, was reduced to an ash heap.

“So we just got up and ran, heading for the highest ground in the camp. Flames were raging everywhere we looked, and people were scrambling for their lives,” the articulate and bright young woman continued. “Right then, I really believed we were all going to die. Oh God, I was so scared… All I managed to grab before I ran was my mobile phone and the charger. Everything else was lost in the fire.”

Losing her father at an early age made her all the more exposed and vulnerable to the horrendous conditions on Lesbos. “I am one of those Afghans who’s never set foot in Afghanistan,” she went on in her excellent English, partly picked up at the local language institute and partly on the internet. »My parents were refugees from Mazar-e-Sharif. I was brought up in Iran. Losing my father so soon was the worst possible blow for all of us. My mother and I used to agonise over setting off for Europe or not. But in the end, we realised we simply had no other choice. There was no future at all for us in Iran.”

Fright night

Before she got coerced into moving into the new camp, Safia spent 10 days sleeping rough, with only what passing strangers gave her for sustenance. These, she winced, were the worst days of her life. The experience was even more frightening than the savage four months she spent in the murky side streets of Istanbul and Izmir, waiting for her passage to Greece.

Yes, there was the proverbial kindness of strangers in the wake of the Moria fire. But there was also humiliation, harassment and bitter invective. Toward the end of her ordeal, Safia was reduced to a quivering wreck.

Moving into the new camp, which could easily be dubbed Moria 2.0, didn’t do much for her mental state.

Her new reality is quite simply overwhelming. Tents without even remotely adequate flooring, a single meal each day and a dire shortage of drinkable water. In the entire camp, there are only 35 chemical toilets for 12,000 people and a few appallingly filthy shower stalls. Then there is the lack of medicine and medical staff and the pitifully inadequate quarantine measures for the almost 300 refugees already infected with the coronavirus. Hundreds of children and teenagers in Moria are without their parents. The horrible overcrowding is stirring up ethnic hostilities. All the war trauma and PTSD leads to countless acts of petty cruelty. Racism. Despair. Mounting police violence. The understandable rage of the local population.

The list goes on and on.

Given the conditions in Moria, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head – before the whole thing went up in flames. Yet it now seems clear the Greek authorities have learned nothing from the debacle.

The conditions at Kara Tepe are direct proof that the authorities learnt nothing from the mistakes of the past. The surreal squalor of Moria 2.0 is the final confirmation that the authorities in Athens are deliberately failing to invest into improving the living conditions for migrants, despite the European funds collected specifically for that purpose.

There is a twisted logic to the Greek authorities’ actions. After all, improved infrastructure could greatly contribute to Greece being rebranded as a ‘safe country’ in the eyes of the other EU members. And this could trigger the so-called Dublin II Regulation, which has been described as exceedingly unfair to the southern EU states – and rightly so. The northern states would then be legally able to send their asylum seekers back to the state of their first asylum application. And due to basic geography, the vast majority of them had first set foot on European soil in Greece or Italy.

The Greek authorities are, thus, doing everything in their power not to be deemed a safe country. And Safia, her mother and brother and everyone else in the camp, are paying the price.

No more music

“When the flames started to settle, I ran to our container,” Safia explained, now on the verge of tears. “There was nothing left… Nothing. Even my most treasured possession, a pair of guitars I’ve managed to hold on to – both were lost to the fire.”

She went on to share that she was a self-taught musician. In addition to the guitar, Safia also played the piano and used to regularly post her recordings on the internet. “Without my guitars and my singing, I simply do not feel alive.”

When one of the humanitarian volunteers helping the refugees learned of her loss, he gave her his own guitar. There is only one thing, she says, which could bring her even greater joy. And that is for her family’s asylum request to be granted, so they could finally resume their journey to Germany.

This is something she daydreams about. Every day, every hour, all the time. She is also working hard to learn the German language over the internet.

Five years after the historically unique but temporary refugee corridor through the Balkans toward Northern Europe was closed down, Germany is still considered to be the promised land for the vast majority of the refugees and migrants here. Roughly 70% of those currently stranded on Lesbos arrived here from Afghanistan.

“A month and a half ago, we were summoned for an asylum interview,” Safia recalled. “During the whole year we spent waiting for it, most of the other single Afghan women with children were allowed to leave the island. I don’t know why they made us wait so long. Anyway, the interview was perfectly pleasant – they were actually quite nice to us. They promised we would get their reply in two weeks’ time. But once again, nothing happened. And then the fire broke out.”

Safia shivered again, only to clear her throat and resume: “My greatest fear is that the calamity has sort of reset the entire process. And that we will have to remain here, in hell for a good long while. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me, watching my sick and exhausted mother and all the other broken-down people here trying to make it through another day.”

Penal colony 

It wasn’t hard to understand the naked fear on Safia’s face. The first major downpour was certain to demonstrate just how pitifully misguided the choice of location for the new camp was. Its ramshackle ramparts seemed vulnerable even to the wind.

Kara Tepe was being set up on the land of a well-known local member of the ruling New Democracy party. Ever since its opening, the entrance to the camp had been a very crowded place. Adding to the crowds was the commendably high number of humanitarian workers alighting here daily from all over the world to help reduce the inmates’ plight.

The humanitarians were quick to inform me that they are increasingly being targeted for attacks. Not only by the extreme right-wingers from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but also by locals who had previously shown tolerance and understanding towards the refugees.

The locals were now truly starting to lose their temper, especially in the wake of the increased tensions with Turkey, which sent several thousand refugees and migrants over to Greece at the start of March. The people of Lesbos realised all too damn well that they – along with the local populations of Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros – had been sacrificed by Athens and Brussels on the altar of shameless political and economic opportunism.

It has to be said: the people of Lesbos have managed to hold out for an admirably long time. But now their empathy seemed to be running on fumes. And little wonder. Tourism, their main source of sustenance, was now officially dead. The agency buses have been replaced by police barriers, and the well-heeled travellers by desperate traumatised people on the run.

Possibly the greatest tragedy of all is how misguidedly the locals have started picking the targets for their justified rage. Once again, the most vulnerable and exposed are bearing the brunt of it. Humanitarian workers are also being increasingly punished for the cardinal sin of working around the clock to save lives, both at sea and on solid ground.

But the blame for sacrificing the island is of course not theirs. The main culprits why, in the words of brilliant British journalist Andrew Connelly, Lesbos has been turned into ‘a penal colony’, can be found in the governing chambers all over Europe.

The EU in its entirety has decided to look away. Granted, there is much talk about ‘a refugee crisis’, but at least in the bloc, there is no such thing. And there never was – not even in 2015 and 2016, when the European border was crossed by over a million of those fleeing war, abject poverty and the ever more devastating consequences of climate change.

Please allow me to repeat this crucial if direly under-reported point: there is and never has been no such thing as a refugee crisis in the EU. The 500-million-strong union has so far accepted fewer Syrian refugees than crisis-riddled Lebanon, with a population of just 5 million.

Nowhere to turn

As I entered the perimeter, the exhausted refugees and migrants were forming a long line in front of the new camp to wait for registration and a quick COVID-19 test. The choice they were facing was between moving to Kara Tepe or hunger and deportation. At first, while they still had some strength, many tried to resist. But then hunger and thirst broke their resolve, so they took their place in line.

Naturally enough, the Greek authorities are trying to frame the quick relocation to the new camp as a great success story. In this, they are greatly helped by the soft rhetoric of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is ignoring the dire conditions of the refugees in the new makeshift camp which are not very different to those that prevailed in the smouldering heap that was once Moria.

As the new authoritarianism spreads like wildfire all over the globe, both the international conventions and the international structures tasked with upholding them are crumbling fast. And the abject dehumanisation on Lesbos continues unpunished. The banality of evil is gaining momentum and the rights of asylum-seekers are by now nothing more than a threadbare joke.

“For ten days, we slept out in the open. Though we hardly slept… We were hungry. The children got very ill. They cried and cried all through the night. They need medical help, but there are so many of us, and most of us need help. I don’t know what to do, where to turn,” said a Hazara mother of four waiting to gain admission to the new camp.

The woman refused to give me her name. But at least she was willing to talk to me. Most of her fellow sufferers did not do so. Covered with face masks, figure after passing figure declined to speak, using apologetic gestures to convey their utter exhaustion.

The ruins of civilisation

Like a David Lynch scene, the remains of the Moria camp are huge and frightening, dealing a rough blow to the senses. The smell of burning is exceptionally strong and soon sort of etches into the skin. In spite of the sun’s blaze and the blue of the Aegean sky above, the site seems strangely drained of colour, except for black, white and grey.

Burnt-out containers. The smouldering remains of what used to be a cot. A thoroughly blackened teapot. One half of a sooty teddy-bear. A shoe. Lots and lots and lots of charred metal. A number of olive trees braving this apocalyptic landscape like spent matches about to crumble. A clump of possibly still live electrical wiring. Fresh human excrement. Discarded face masks, a half-melted mobile phone, a trampled baby pacifier. A portable stove, a shard from what used to be a plate, heaps of refuse and blackened clothes. And among them rummages a playful and frighteningly trusting puppy with eyes of two different colours. Life had not yet kicked him in the teeth.

A number of local labourers were carrying off large chunks of metal and heaving them onto a truck. The process of recycling the former site into Moria 2.0 was already in full swing. A lone policeman was assigned to keeping vigil over the ash and dust. He seemed blissfully unconcerned by a pair of local teenagers combing through the site.

“Next week I’m going to have to close the place down. The fire put me out of business,” grimaced the owner of a local bar, who used to do quite well for herself before the fire.

The place itself was left untouched by the flames. Yet this made its red, blue and yellow plastic chairs and the advertisements for a famous Italian coffee brand seem only more surreal amid the cinders.

This was less David Lynch and more like Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Out of the Taliban frying pan, into the Moria fire

“Yesterday, my wife and me moved into the new camp. We got our quick COVID tests and then we got registered. Both of us are on our final legs: the lack of sleep is killing us. We want to go somewhere else – anywhere – just as long as we can go right now. But we’re stuck here,” winced Asif, 36, standing by the reeking exit of Moria 1.0. “Almost everything we had was burned in the fire. I suppose we’re glad to have survived. But the problem is that we now have to live.”

Asif is from the Afghan city of Helmand, a notorious Taliban stronghold. After we exchanged a few memories from some of the Afghan war’s bloodiest battle-fronts, he opened up.

“Two days before the fire, my wife and me, we finally got the asylum interview,” he said. “We told the Greek officials that we were fleeing for our lives. We said we were quite prepared to remain here in Greece. We kept promising that we really were fleeing horrible bloodshed, and that we weren’t out to steal anyone’s job. And then, after spending a year in Moria, we almost died in the fire. It was unbelievable. It was like nothing I had ever seen.”

Asif shook his head as he pushed a shopping trolley filled with sooty junk from the old camp to the new one. He was exhausted and might have been suffering from the initial stages of sunstroke. For the high UN and EU officials’ information, this is what ‘relocation’ really looks like on the island of Lesbos.

“The conditions in the new camp are even worse than in Moria,” Asif sighed and halted his progress, leaning onto his trolley to gather strength. “Perhaps the worst thing is the filth. We’ve been reduced to washing in the sea, but even the sea is now dirty. The people are so angry. Lots of fights break out during the night. I’m afraid we are about to see a lot more violence.”

On the concrete wall by the road to Kara Tepe graffiti reading ‘Welcome to Europehas been supplemented with the appropriate qualifier ‘Human Rights Graveyard.

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Belgium’s endless identity crisis

 
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As it stumbles from one political crisis to the next, Belgium faces a profound existential threat. But can the slow disintegration of the Belgian state be reversed and, if so, how?

 

The caretaker government of Sophie Wilmès remains in place.
Image: Facebook page of Sophie Wilmès

Friday 25 September 2020

Back in 2011, Belgium made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the dubious achievement of going through the longest peacetime period without a government. Clocking in at 589 days, this was more than 200 days ahead of its nearest contenders, Cambodia (354 days) and Iraq (289 days).

This record appeared unbeatable… until now.

Last month, Belgium broke its own record. The country is still being run by a caretaker government because its squabbling parties have not managed to agree on a governing coalition. This is despite marathon negotiating sessions and a continuous stream of brave knightly politicians tasked by King Philippe to slay the dragon of political polarisation but who get their fingers burned instead.

Coalition negotiations have moved beyond the more common colour-coding conventions (purple-green,rainbow, etc.) to be dubbed the “Vivaldi coalition” in a nod to the Italian composer’s violin concerti Four Seasons.

Like Antonio Vivaldi, Flemish liberal Egbert Lachaert (who is the 12th politician to lead the consultations to form a coalition since the elections way back in May 2019), has had the unenviable task of composing an agreement that, while not music to the ears of any party, can at least get socialists, liberals, greens and Christian democrats on both sides of the country’s widening language divide singing from the same hymn sheet.

Just when it appeared that Lachaert may have hit the right notes and a full agreement, including the thorny question of who is to become prime minister, was expected to be sealed, COVID-19 struck, delaying the negotiations and throwing the situation back into disarray. This week, the king extended Lachaert’s mandate in the hope that differences between the would-be coalition partners could be ironed out.

Even if a coalition is successfully formed and takes over the reins of government, it is open to question whether such a broad alliance will be stable and survive till the next election, especially given the destablising effect of the deep socioeconomic crisis gripping Europe and the world.

If the government falls again, it will be the unfortunate culmination of Belgium’s second major crisis in less than a decade. This raises the question of what is behind this systemic failure.

One factor is the attempt to keep the far-right out of government. However, with the extremist Vlaams Belang performing strongly at the ballot box in 2019, maintaining this so-called Cordon Sanitaire (i.e. an exclusion zone around the far-right party) is proving harder than ever. The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), which is one of the two largest right-wing parties in Belgium and part of the negotiations, has been openly questioning the Cordon Sanitaire.

Another major issue is the growing political gulf separating Belgium’s two main regions. Francophone Wallonia tends to vote for more leftist and progressive parties, while Dutch-speaking Flanders generally prefers more conservative and right-wing parties.

This ideological divide, combined with growing animosity between Flemish nationalists and Francophone socialists, means that a coalition between the other largest party, the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the N-VA, is almost unthinkable.

Such a constellation would also likely be unworkable. This is partly ideological. The PS is social democratic, supports the EU and believes in climate action, while the N-VA is free-market neo-liberal, Eurosceptical and downplays climate change. They also disagree fundamentally about the future of Belgium, with the PS believing in a united Belgium and the N-VA seeking to decentralise the country out of existence.

This growing polarisation has placed almost unbearable strain on the model of consensual politics, known colloquially as the “Belgian compromise“, that has so effectively defused tension and stopped conflicts from spinning out of control since the country’s founding in 1830.

In fact, the Belgian federal government has become so hollowed out, with decades of devolution effectively making regional governments more powerful, that many view the gradual death of Belgium as almost an inevitability.

As a naturalised Belgian citizen, I find this simmering disintegration of Belgium a shame – partly because I appreciate the eccentric appeal of this small multilingual, multicultural country.

Besides, although many believe that a country bringing together three official language communities (Dutch, French and German) is bound to fail the test of time and fall apart, I am convinced there is nothing inevitable about Belgium’s slow-burning implosion.

In my view, the country is falling apart not because of irreconcilable differences between its communities but as a result of a devolution process that has gone too far.

Belgium has had neither national parties nor national media for decades. Education, too, has been regionalised, as has, bizarrely, foreign policy. Even its prized healthcare system, one of the best in the world, has not been unaffected by this regionalisation, with nine ministers holding health-related portfolios.

This, rather than fundamental differences between Flemings and Walloons, has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts and a rise in distrust.

In reality, the difference between Belgium’s two regions are far smaller than the divergence between states and regions in larger countries, such as China, India, Russia or the United States.

In some ways, Walloon and Flemish Belgians – who are, as much as one can generalise about national characters, understated, reserved and do not take themselves too seriously – have more in common with each other than with the people with whom they share a language across the border.

This explains why, if Belgium were to split apart, Walloons would not support becoming part of France and Flemings are opposed to joining the Netherlands, judging by the anecdotal evidence I have seen over the years. Moreover, the two communities do not have pleasant historical memories of life under French or Dutch rule. In fact, Belgium was founded following a revolution by its predominantly Catholic population against the Protestant King William I of the Netherlands.

Instead, what is vastly more likely is that Flanders would become an even tinier independent state and Wallonia would keep the name Belgium and hope for future reunification.

The best way to halt the disintegration of Belgium and stop it from devolving into two irrelevant countries is to pursue a process of gradual reintegration that moves beyond the fossilised issue of language and looks towards the common interest of all Belgians.

A first step in that direction would be to reintegrate Belgium’s political system by reintroducing national parties. This would stabilise the volatile political system by making it easier to create coalitions, thereby reigniting the spirit of Belgian compromise.

Other steps would be to reintegrate the media, to help create greater awareness and understanding between the communities, and reform education so that every Belgian child receives full immersion in Dutch and French.

Belgium often strikes the outsider as quirky and surreal. But it makes no less sense as a country than any other and has, to its credit, avoided the kind of costly and destructive conflict that has brought other polarised societies to their knees. Let us hope that this sense of pragmatism and the country’s legendary capacity for “Belgian compromise” regain the upper hand.

___

This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 9 September 2020.

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Defining tyranny: Hitler, a dictionary and the death of a Jewish Arabist

 
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By Khaled Diab

The world’s best-known Arabic dictionary started off as a Nazi propaganda project and cost a young Jewish scholar her life. It’s time Hedwig Klein received the posthumous recognition she deserves.

Hedwig Klein at work.

Thursday 30 July 2020

Dictionaries are like the librarians of books. They have a reputation for being mild, polite and impartial. Unlike, say, novels or political tomes, nobody would expect a dictionary to be political, much less controversial.

But there is a dictionary that is both.

Hans Wehr, the world’s most renowned dictionary of modern Arabic usage, is the constant companion of foreign students of Arabic and Arabists.

However, this learning aid that has helped generations of Arabists has a dark and disturbing history that few are aware of and shocked me and other users of this reference work when they learned about it. The venerable dictionary started out as a Nazi project and it gave a young Jewish scholar a stay of execution but only for the time she worked on it.

Although the dictionary only saw the light of day in the early 1950s, work on it began in the 1930s, under the auspices of the Nazi regime, which entertained the vain hope of producing a high-quality Arabic translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Frustrated by the quality of the available translations of Hitler’s opus, the German foreign office learned about the project of the Arabist Hans Wehr (after whom the dictionary is named) to painstakingly and meticulously compile a dictionary based on actual modern usage of Arabic rather than the more conventional classical sources.

Such a resource would be useful, the Nazi propaganda machine reasoned, in the so-far futile efforts to produce an official translation of Hitler’s autobiography and manifesto.

Part of the problem lay in the fact that the Arabs who had attempted to translate Mein Kampf had been hobbyists who did not know German and relied on the French or English translation.

Another challenge, but one unlikely to have been recognised or admitted by the Nazi authorities, was the poor quality of the original text. Reflecting the mediocrity of Hitler’s evil, Mein Kampf was so spectacularly bad that even fellow fascists derided the memoir. It was mocked as “a boring tome that I have never been able to read… [full of] little more than commonplace clichés,” by  Benito Mussolini, according to the biography of the Italian fascist dictator written by Denis Mack Smith.

Ironically, Wehr received invaluable assistance in this propaganda project from an unlikely source, a young and talented Jewish Arabist by the name of Hedwig Klein, an Islamic studies scholar who did not receive the PhD she had worked so hard towards due to Nazi race laws (a fascinating biography of Klein is available here).

At the time, surprising as it may seem today, interest in Islam and the Arabs was in vogue amongst Jewish intellectuals in Europe, who peered eastward in the hope of finding salvation from anti-Semitism, with many believing that there was a natural affinity between Judaism and Islam.

After having unsuccessfully attempted to flee Nazi Germany for British-occupied India, Klein’s last, desperate hope to escape Hitler’s Final Solution was to work on Wehr’s dictionary.

The knowledgeable young scholar, whose modest ambition had once been to become an academic librarian, set to work voraciously reading modern Arabic literature and noting down the words used and their meanings.

The quality of her entries received high praise from Wehr’s team but one member noted that “it will be completely impossible for her to be credited as a contributor later”.

One can only begin to imagine the conflicted emotions, not to mention fear, which Klein experienced. It must have felt like a cruel blow of fate for a young Jew who had been stripped of her rights and her academic credentials to work on an academic project whose ultimate aim was to glorify her tormentor, the “Führer” of Aryan supremacy, in order to avoid being deported to a death camp.

Ultimately, her efforts were in vain, buying her no more than a year. On 11 July 1942, Hedwig Klein was deported to Auschwitz where she perished.

After the war, Klein was posthumously recognised as a Doctor of Philosophy.

Fortunately for humanity, no authorised Arabic translation of Mein Kampf appeared – though unofficial translations are available in numerous bookshops in the Arab world.

As for Hans Wehr, he finished his dictionary as the war was ending, in 1945. He managed to get past the post-war denazification process by claiming to have “managed to save a Jewish academic colleague… by requesting that the Gestapo release her for work supposedly important to the war effort”.

By doing so, Wehr exploited Hedwig Klein twice over: once to profit from her labours before she was exterminated and a second time to abuse her memory to evade punishment for his Nazi past.

Although Wehr thanks Klein amongst other contributors in the foreword to his dictionary, which was finally published in 1952, he makes no mention of what her contribution to his work was nor of her murder at Auschwitz.

This whitewashing of history must end. Future editions of the dictionary must include the full story of Hedwig Klein and of the Nazi propaganda machine’s backing of this dictionary project.

And just as Klein was posthumously awarded her PhD, she should receive belated credit for the dictionary that failed to save her and for which she ultimately gave her life.

From now on, the world’s foremost dictionary of modern Arabic should be renamed Klein-Wehr.

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The mediocrity of evil

 
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Many of the leaders held up as representing the epitome of evil were extraordinarily and spectacularly untalented, incapable and incompetent. With this mediocrity of evil, it is almost a wonder that they managed to rise to the top at all.

 

Friday 10 July 2020

After observing the trial of one of the key organisers of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the memorable phrase, “the banality of evil”.

This term captures how otherwise ordinary people can be motivated or driven to commit acts of extreme inhumanity and cruelty; how ordinary people are capable of extraordinary feats of uncritical thought in the service of an ideology or authority figure; and how some people are so able and willing to compartmentalise and rationalise the heinous crimes they have committed.

It strike me that this banal nature of evil lurks mostly among the rank and file. Among the upper echelons, however, it transforms and transcends this mere banality to become the mediocrity of evil. Many of the leaders held up as representing the epitome of evil, especially those who built up massive personality cults, were extraordinarily and spectacularly mediocre and incompetent.

Naturally, I do not mean to suggest by the above that all totalitarian tyrants and demagogic dictators were or are stupid and incompetent. Just as the ‘banality of evil’ does not preclude the existence of evildoers who are entirely committed and believe in the crimes they commit, the mediocrity of evil does not mean that no evildoers exist who are not highly competent and extremely intelligent. Examples of murderous tyrants who were also smart include, according to some historians, Joseph Stalin, though Leon Trotsky would beg to differ, and Mao Zedong.

It just means that a surprisingly large proportion of them are so spectacularly untalented and incapable that it is almost a wonder that they managed to rise to the top at all.

This stands in stark contrast with the popular image of evil, immortalised mythically in the firebrand intelligence of the devil, the cruel and fiery master of the blazing underworld. What he lacks in omnipotence, he makes up for in resourcefulness, drive and brains. In the popular imagination, Satan is a genius of persuasion, a criminal mastermind who can outsmart saints and turn them into sinners, who possesses such a command of the art of the deal that he can forge dastardly pacts with humans.

But real-life people who aspire or make it to the position of “dark lord” often lack Darth Vader’s debased brilliance. They are far less Sauron and far more Gollum, mediocre individuals lured by the ring of power, addicted to it and corrupted by it. They are the real-world personification of the inadequate man pulling the levers controlling the Wizard of Oz.

This mediocrity of evil can be clearly viewed in Donald Trump who, despite his repeated protestations, is anything but a “stable genius”. Before his unlikely rise to power, Trump was dismissed as a clown, an entertaining freak sideshow on the election trail – though it turned out that some segments of the media underestimated him. They were his useful idiots rather than the other way around.

Trump’s mediocrity is not just intellectual, political and cultural, it even stretches into the sphere he most prides himself on, business, where what success he has had was largely built on his father’s money and his first wife’s acumen. The man seems incapable of seeing the world beyond himself or being interested in anyone but himself – hence, his natural affinity to the notion of a personality cult.

Some have attempted to dismiss Trump as an aberration, an unfortunate aligning of the political stars. But this mediocrity of evil is nothing new and, sadly, rather common.

Überidiot

‘Adolf, the Superman: Swallows gold and spouts junk’
Photo montage by John Heartfield, 1932.
Source: https://www.johnheartfield.com/John-Heartfield-Exhibition/john-heartfield-art/famous-anti-fascist-art/heartfield-posters-aiz/adolf-the-superman-hitler-portrait

Although Hitler has assumed the mythical proportions of an evil genius, a super-villain, partly thanks to the power of Nazi propaganda and Germany’s lethal, nihilistic performance during World War II, the pre-Führer Adolf was once a young aspiring artist of little talent and even less education, having dropped out of school before even acquiring his secondary certificate.

Nazism was anti-intellectual and its founding father was the antithesis of the intellectual. At the time of its publication, Hitler’s main opus, Mein Kampf, was derided not only by his opponents but was panned even by many fellow fascists. It was mocked as “a boring tome that I have never been able to read… [full of] little more than commonplace clichés,” by  Benito Mussolini, hardly a noted original thinker himself, according to the biography of the Italian fascist dictator written by Denis Mack Smith. This must have really stung, as “Il Duce” was a role model and inspiration for Hitler.

In the early 1930s, before he’d managed to fully construct his totalitarian personality cult that did away with anyone who publicly derided him, Hitler was mocked as a buffoon by German cabaret artists.

That said, Hitler’s lightweight intellect and intelligence does not mean that he lacked personality or charisma. “Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality,” acknowledged George Orwell, no doubt unconsciously influenced by the mythmaking might of the Nazi propaganda machine, in a 1940 essay about Hitler’s Orwellian machinations.

“In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself,” the not-yet author of 1984 wrote of a photo of the Führer. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.”

“Hitler’s strength consists solely in the clever use of already existing trends, ideas and situations,” wrote Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. “The mass leader is necessarily a virtuoso of commonplaces which he may or may not repeat in the guise of a ‘new discovery’. The modern dictator is not out to contradict but to confirm already existing views (and prejudices).”

Moreover, contrary to popular perceptions, Hitler was lazy, by the account of those closest to him. “He stayed up all hours during the night talking and playing music and watching films. He got up very, very late. It was unusual for him to have stirred before 12 o’clock midday,” noted Andrew Wilson, the author of a brief biography of Hitler.

Beyond the person of Hitler, the whole Nazi apparatus, far from being a well-oiled and efficient machine, was riddled with incompetence and inefficiency, centred as it was around the ego, whims and foibles of its unreliable and temperamental leaders. “Hitler produced the biggest confusion in government that has ever existed in a civilised state,” the German tyrant’s own press secretary Otto Dietrich once opined.

In short, rather than make Germany great again, Hitler took the most intellectually and technologically advanced society of the time and threw it off a very high cliff.

However, the image of Hitler and the Nazis as larger-than-life monoliths suited their supporters and opponents alike. For supporters, it helped validate their trust in such a monstrosity of cruelty and inhumanity. For opponents, it helped make Hitler and the Nazis appear to be completely alien to civilisation, masking just how common and popular his racial ideas were in the Europe of the time, even amongst those engaged in toppling his tyranny.

Royally untalented

Beyond Europe, the modern Arab world has been cursed with a depressingly high share of mediocre despots, with the most spectacularly incompetent probably being Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

In the case of Gaddafi, who seized power when he was a young lieutenant in the army, his mediocrity when combined with his extraordinary vanity led him to aspire to and claim greatness for himself in the most ludicrous ways, from financing intrigues abroad to remaking Libya in his own image, despite the fact that he officially held no position of authority and was simply the Orwellian-sounding “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution“.

Not only did the Libyan dictator seek and fail to be anointed Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s successor as populist leader of the Arab world, when he turned his unrequited attentions to Africa only to be cold-shouldered as an eccentricity by his fellow African leaders, he had himself unofficially crowned the “king of kings” by 200 traditional leaders. Gaddafi was infamous for backroom slagging matches with fellow Arab leaders which sometimes erupted front of stage, such as occurred during a 2009 spat at the Arab League with Saudi Arabia’s then king, Abdullah. “I am the leader of the Arab leaders, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of the Muslims,” the Libyan despot said before departing the conference.

Then there was Gaddafi’s little Green Book. Published in a colour more commonly associated with the Quran but weighing in at only around 21,000 words, or about 100 pages, the Libyan dictator’s slim volume became the second most sacred book in Libya and compulsory reading for pupils and students across the country.

Despite its muddled logic, poor argumentation and intellectual shallowness, the Green Book was promoted outside Libya too. The World Centre for the Study and Research of the Green Book, which translated the book into 30 languages, had branches around the world. When I lived in Brussels, I recall, there was a branch just down the road from my flat which only stocked the Green Book and commentaries on it. It was always empty.

Although the Green Book was Gaddafi’s best-known work, his oeuvre extended to fiction. One non-Libyan reviewer memorably described the dictator’s short story collection, which contained “no characters, no twists, no subtle illuminations”, as “a truly unhinged free-form eruption of useless words” that reflected “a mind that cannot follow a coherent thought for very long”.

 

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Robust health systems are society’s first line of defence against pandemics

 
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Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional and failing state, yet its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been surprisingly functional and successful. This highlights how effective healthcare acts as society’s immune system.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 6 May 2020

With its chronic, record-breaking inability to form governing coalitions and its crumbling federal government, Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional failure. Although the country is regularly described as a “surreal state” or the world’s most prosperousfailed state” in the foreign media, citizens have become increasingly resigned to the deadlock and the Byzantine machinations of the political elite, often joking that the country works better without a government.

When a COVID-19 epidemic broke out in Italy and threatened to spread across Europe, there were serious concerns that Belgium’s polarised parliament, fragmented government (the country has nine federal and regional health ministers) and minority caretaker government would prove ill-equipped to deal with the acute public health crisis hurtling towards the country.

Despite the political crisis paralysing the country, most of the squabbling parties decided to put public health above partisanship, exhibiting the pragmatism that Belgium used to be famed for. The parliament awarded acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, along with the National Security Council, enough emergency powers to tackle the looming crisis.

Wilmès, who was appointed to head the caretaker government in October 2019, has been thrust centre stage of the greatest crisis for generations. Her cool-headed, understated, calming and inclusive performance, which contrasts starkly with the erratic and bombastic style of her British counterpart Boris Johnson, has won plaudits, including from the normally sober and reserved Financial Times, though she has faced some domestic criticism for allegedly being too absent from the public eye.

The Belgian response has been so decisive and, to date, effective that it has taken many by surprise, not least the Belgians themselves.

So, what is behind Belgium’s relative success in handling the epidemic?

One important factor was the speed and timeliness of the response. Despite some early dithering, Belgium went into lockdown just in the nick of time. The unfolding calamity in Italy at the time focused minds and helped decide the undecided.

Another, and possibly the most crucial factor, was Belgium’s highly developed healthcare infrastructure, which, like a collective immune system, has bolstered society’s ability to fight off the virus.

Not only does Belgium’s health sector rank among the best in Europe, vitally, it already possessed a very high concentration of hospital beds and critical care units, enabling it to handle the huge growth in patients requiring intensive care with relatively few adjustments.

In fact, unlike quite a few other countries whose health systems are overwhelmed by the pandemic, Belgium has had plenty of spare critical care capacity throughout the crisis, even when the epidemic was at its peak.

The major weak point and failure has been nursing and residential homes for the elderly, where an initial shortage of testing kits meant too many cases went undetected. Of the nearly 8,000 deaths so far attributed to COVID-19 over half have been in care homes for the aged.

The way in which coronavirus casualties are recorded has placed Belgium near the top (for now) of the global league for COVID-19 deaths per million. However, as experts have explained, Belgium is the only country which currently records suspected deaths outside hospitals, which represent 82% of the recorded deaths in care homes. This inflates the death rate in Belgium compared with other hard-hit countries.

Other factors at play include the country’s high population density, its relatively old population and comparatively low levels of testing compared with the most successful countries like Germany and South Korea.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Around the world, lockdowns and social distancing are proving the most challenging measures to implement. Although Belgium has implemented what has been referred to as a “lockdown light”, crucially, it involved the closing down of all but the most crucial economic activities, which was not the case in Italy until late into the crisis.

It also allowed people some time outdoors, which appears to have been more successful than in some countries which imposed a full lockdown. This could be partly because allowing people to go out and exercise or walk responsibly is not only good for their health, but also gives them the chance to let off some steam, enabling them to stick to the other restrictions with greater ease.

And this has largely been the case. Despite some early reports of occasional “lockdown parties ” and some people escaping restrictions by crossing into neighbouring Holland, the public has generally and spontaneously abided by the social distancing rules with minimal need for policing, although the Easter weekend saw a spike in violations, raising fears at the time that this could lead to a new peak. That said, the public was sometimes ahead of the government, with many businesses and shops shuttering before the government officially ordered it.

Even though Belgium was already a society in which personal space was respected, seeing how quickly people have integrated social distancing into their daily routines is impressive. In the few shops that remain open, people were already standing and queuing well apart from each other before markers were put down on the floors. In open-air public spaces, people were also generally distancing themselves from other pedestrians.

Employing good democratic governance, persuasion and consensus-building, rather than coercion, has helped this widespread compliance, even if the far-right and Flemish nationalists have been making unhelpful noises. This has also been accompanied by a cross-partisan commitment to following scientific advice.

While certain politicians in other countries, such as US President Donald Trump, have tried to upstage or contradict scientists, effectively politicising the crisis, the Belgian government’s measured response has not only been led by science, but also relevant experts have often been given greater prominence in the media than political figures.

The daily press briefings delivered by virologist Steven Van Gucht of the National Crisis Centre have become essential viewing for ordinary Belgians. Fellow virologist and epidemiologist Marc Van Ranst has become an almost daily fixture in evening current affairs programmes, where he has explained the reasoning behind each new measure and discussed possible future developments.

Another essential ingredient in the success of these restrictions was the fact that Belgium is an affluent society with a decent, albeit worsening, social security and solidarity system.

The Belgian state, along with many businesses and organisations, decided pretty early on that preserving human life and preventing the uncontrolled spread of the virus was worth taking a major economic hit. Although this is causing hardship for many vulnerable people and smaller businesses, the shock is being softened by an emergency aid package that includes the deferment of tax, mortgage and bank payments, as well as giving workers in vulnerable sectors temporary unemployment benefits.

These efforts appear to be paying off gradually, with epidemiologists confirming that a downward trend is now in motion, leading to a gradual loosening of restrictions, which has proven a challenging undertaking that appears to be favouring restarting the economy over reviving social contacts, especially for children.

However, success still hinges on how well the population continues to stick to the rules, experts emphasise.

The situation in Belgium highlights the critical importance of investing heavily in healthcare and social safety nets in good times, not just during emergencies. One only hopes that once the pandemic is over, politicians, including in Belgium, will recall this lesson and boost investment in these increasingly neglected areas, despite the inevitable economic crisis which will follow.

What the case of Belgium and other wealthy European countries also underlines is that such a robust response to the pandemic is a luxury which poorer countries cannot afford if and when they are hit by this coronavirus.

This raises the urgent need for global solidarity. It is imperative that a global COVID-19 fund is established to help poorer countries deal with the medical and economic challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as a mobile rapid response “army” of medical professionals that can be sent to coronavirus hotspots as and when they appear.

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This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 13 April 2020.

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The demographic dimension: The role of population growth in the Arab uprisings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of unprecedented population growth have played a significant role in Arab regime repression, the two main waves of revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 24 January 2020

Over the past century, the Arab region has experienced dramatic population growth, not only caused by high birth rates but also by drastically increased survival rates and life expectancy. This has resulted in the largest (and most educated) population the region has ever had.

The region, too often dominated by an ageing leadership and elite, has failed – due to a combination of internal and external factors – to take advantage of this population boom, resulting in millions of marginalised and disaffected citizens. With jobs and prospects in short supply and repression in overabundance, people are discontented, restive and angry. This essay explores the direct and indirect roles the region’s demographic dynamics have played in regime repression and neglect, and how this repression of the burgeoning population influenced the two main waves of Arab revolutions that swept the region, and the fierce counterrevolutions that followed.

Even though the rate of population growth has slowed, the region’s population is still expanding, which will  continue to affect Arab political, social, economic and environmental landscapes.

Population power

The Arab region has experienced unprecedented demographic growth in recent decades. This has had profound social, economic, environmental and political consequences. It played not only a significant factor in the revolutionary wave and uprisings that have rocked the region, but also in the repression that preceded and followed it.

This is not to suggest that demographic change is the only or the primary factor at play, nor is it to argue for the simplistic and deterministic theory that revolutions occur when there is a “youth bulge” or that the poor are the authors of their own destitution.

Revolutions are, after all, complicated events that occur during periods of enormous confusion. The motivating factors for which are poorly understood and disputed even by those involved in them or by those watching them closely. Revolutions occur at different places and times for an intricate web of overlapping and oft-contradictory reasons, and can be triggered by very different groups and involve a mindbogglingly diverse array of different players.

Having acknowledged the innate complexity of revolutionary movements and mass uprisings, it is my conviction – based on the evidence at hand – that the region’s demographic evolution was a major factor in sparking the mass revolts which began at the end of 2010, and in fuelling the current second wave of uprisings, though the exact role it has played differed markedly from one country to the other.

Fodder for frustration

As a starting point, we can examine the revolutionary slogans used during protests for evidence of the role of population growth in fuelling popular discontent. “Bread”, or some similar variant, was a common rallying cry across the region, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, with the ongoing popular uprising in Sudan initially dubbed the ‘Bread Revolution.’

At one level, this constituted an almost literal call for bread. Food security for poor Arabs has worsened significantly in recent years. Already in 2007 and 2008, and again in 2010-2012, demonstrations and riots broke out in the Middle East and other parts of the world to protest rising food prices, which threatened to turn basic nourishment into a luxury for the poorest.

This was to a large extent due to factors external to the region, such as droughts in grain-exporting countries, rising fuel prices, growing global demand for richer diets, speculation in food commodity markets, and growing demand for biofuels.

However, one factor is firmly domestic: the region’s growing inability to feed itself. Rapid population growth, coupled with water and land scarcity, not to mention the massive loss of arable land due to the dual catastrophes of global warming and urbanisation, have combined to make Arab countries among the most dependent in the world on food imports. One exception is Sudan, which possesses enough arable land to feed itself. However, this land is underutilised while being increasingly seized by foreign investors, especially in the Gulf states, for their own food security.

For example, the region imports nearly three-fifths of the wheat it consumes, with some countries importing as much as 100%. Although malnutrition levels are low by the standards of developing countries, hunger levels are growing, mostly due to conflicts but also due to expanding poverty levels.

Take Egypt as an example. In ancient times, its consistently large food surpluses enabled it to flourish like almost no other civilisation of the time. A century ago, the country was still able to feed itself and produce an agricultural surplus. However, since the mid-20th century, when Egypt’s population began to explode, it became increasingly dependent on food imports, especially wheat.

Today, Egypt imports a large percentage of its population’s calorific needs. This makes the country, like the wider region, extremely vulnerable to weather events, climatic conditions and geopolitical dynamics outside its own borders, in a world where the food surpluses of recent decades are shrinking while the global population continues to grow.

This leaves millions of citizens barely able to subsist in the face of rising prices and tightening supplies, especially as the welfare state continues to be dismantled with the removal of most subsidies. It is no accident that two food price shocks occurring in quick succession in an import-dependent region should play a significant role in sparking mass unrest.

Demographic despair

The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the symbolic act of desperation that set Tunisia on fire in 2010 and resonated with people across the region, touches on another way in which population growth set the stage for revolution.

It is true that Tunisia’s population is growing more slowly (1.1% per year) than the rest of the Arab region, largely thanks to rapidly rising levels of education, especially amongst women, and the enormous empowerment Tunisian women have experienced in recent decades, not to mention successful family planning and reproductive rights programmes. Nevertheless, the population has grown considerably in recent decades. This is not just owing to birth rates but also to survival rates and life expectancy, which have risen dramatically over the past century in Tunisia and the rest of the region. A Tunisian born at the close of World War II could expect to live, on average, to only 37. A Tunisian baby born today can expect to live twice as long, with life expectancy at birth standing at 74 for men and 78 for women, according to the World Health Organisation.

This has resulted in a spectacular population boom, despite Tunisia’s decades-old status as an emigrant country. Between 1921 and 1966, the population doubled to around 4.5 million. Since then, it has more than doubled again, to reach the current 11 million.

Although the early years of independence were marked by fast-paced development that absorbed this rapid enlargement of the population, this eventually began to falter until, gradually, the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed and underpaid swelled to breaking point.

Naturally, rapid population growth was not the only reason why Tunisia was unable, like most of the region, to create sufficient opportunities for its citizens. Other factors included mismanagement, corruption, an ill-conceived industrialisation process, the neglect of the agricultural sector, neo-liberal reforms, as well as the rapid automation of the local and global economy. This was compounded by the pincer movement of competition from the old giants of the West, who dominate high value-added sectors, and the new giants of Asia, who dominate the more labour-intensive sectors on which the region traditionally relies.

The stagnation and even reduction in the fortunes of large swathes of the population coincided with a period in human history when material aspirations have never been higher or more visible to the average citizen, leading to a sense of relative deprivation even in cases where welfare has improved in absolute terms. Not only were the material basics of life expanding rapidly, people were being exposed to aspirational consumerism as never before, from their TVs, in films, on the internet and on the streets, as the gap between the haves and have-nots widened to become a chasm.

This made for a radioactive mix. The unemployed, who were stuck at home or sat at cafes watching their future vanish behind a pall of tobacco smoke, and the working poor who ran flat out on a treadmill that was dragging them downhill towards oblivion, had to put their aspirations on the shelves and their lives in the deep freezer, delaying – sometimes indefinitely – the greatest milestones of their lives, such as marriage, children or even their own place to live.

The Labours of revolution

On the dawn of revolution in 2010, the proportion of the labour force out of work hovered at around 13%, according to the International Labour Organisation. The unemployment situation was considerably worse for youth (30%), the highly educated (23%) and women (19%). This large idle capacity, along with the increasingly neo-liberal direction in which Tunisia was heading, led to the depression of wages for the average worker, which was reflected in the depressingly low official minimum salary of just 235 TND per month (The situation in the build up to the revolution in Sudan at the end of last year was even more acute. The ranks of the jobless swelled almost threefold, from 3 million to 8 million, over a period of just seven years, with the overwhelming majority of young people out of work, according to a recent report).

With the Tunisian political and business elites unable to create enough jobs for the continuously expanding labour force and unwilling to share more equitably the fruits of economic development, the path open to the regime to deal with popular discontentment was the bitter pill of repression with the added sweetener of occasional enticements and incentives.

During the Habib Bourguiba years, repression was high but the enticements were also significant: many subsidised goods, free quality education and a bloated public sector to absorb some of the surplus workforce. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the repression remained but the enticements were gradually stripped away, except for the incentive of playing the lottery of aligning oneself to the regime in the hope of getting a bite of its crony capitalist cake.

Fewer sweeteners from the state combined with bubbling resentment and discontentment from a well-educated and aspiring population led to what, in retrospect, turned out to be peak police state. The sense of fear, indignity and humiliation this caused produced the third pillar of the revolution, the quest for freedom and dignity.

Shrinking space for the individual

A similar dynamic prevailed in Egypt, at times more intensely. Since the end of the 19th century, the number of people living in Egypt has increased a staggering tenfold. Most of that exponential growth has been since the mid-20th century, with today’s population, which is approaching 100 million, more than five times that of Egypt’s population in 1947. In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the country’s population grew by 20 million people. Egypt’s rapidly growing population has caused it to climb up the global league table, from 20th largest population in 1950 to 15th in 2014. Egypt’s rapidly rising population is not only attributable to high birth rates but, like Tunisia, also to the dramatic decline in death rates due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1937. This population growth is reflected in Egypt’s intensifying population density, which stands at 1,137 people per square kilometre (2016), if Egypt’s vast areas of unpopulated deserts are excluded, making Egypt the 14th most densely populated country in the world.

The social and environmental effects of this overcrowding are immense. There is growing awareness of the desertification caused by human-induced global warming, albeit mostly elsewhere in the world. However, there is another form of desertification that has swallowed up vast tracts of Egypt’s most fertile arable land: rapid urbanisation. By the mid-1990s already, Egypt had lost 912,000 feddans of agricultural land (over 383,000 hectares) to urbanisation. Another study found that, in the quarter of a century between 1992 and 2015, 74,600 hectares of extremely fertile land in the Nile Delta alone had been destroyed by urbanisation.

Overcrowding also places extreme strain on Egypt’s severely stretched water resources. In the past, Egypt, one of the driest lands on the planet which has been described as the largest oasis in the world, was the gift of the Nile because the river’s abundant waters were more than enough to keep the country fertile and fed. Today the Nile, which experts warn is dying, has become Egypt’s curse. Although the Aswan Dam has been a blessing by storing and regulating water flow, enabling the growing population to quench its thirst even during droughts, it has come with an enormous environmental price tag. The extremely fertile alluvial silt from Ethiopia, which once renewed and regenerated Egypt’s Nile valley, is trapped behind the dam. Compensating for this has required vast amounts of chemical fertilisers, which pollute the land and the river. In addition, the decades-long absence of rejuvenating silt, combined with rising sea levels caused by global warming, has caused many coastal areas to become too salinated for agriculture and is threatening the very integrity of the Nile Delta, which is slowly crumbling into the Mediterranean Sea.

With Egypt’s inhabited area smaller than Switzerland, everywhere – from its smallest towns and villages to its largest metropolises – is teeming with people. Lacking sufficient infrastructure, capacity and willpower to deal with the waste produced by so many tens of millions of humans, the quality of the air Egyptians breathe has become toxic, rubbish overflows to pollute public and natural spaces, from empty plots of land to farmland, while many agricultural canals and streams have become open sewers.

Beyond public health and environmental damage, this extreme overcrowding has serious social and psychological consequences, especially in urban areas. In Cairo, people quite literally live on top of each other. Although this has some undoubted cultural and social advantages, the streets are a constant choking confluence of smog, dust, noise and people. Egyptians cope with this overcrowding differently than, say, the Japanese. The coping mechanisms of choice in Japan are orderliness and elaborate rules for personal space and interpersonal interactions. In contrast, Egyptians tend to embrace the involuntary intimacy imposed by overcrowding by being more intimate. People are casual and sociable in public and often attempt to dissipate the tensions caused by heightened physical proximity with humour.

Nevertheless, living in overcrowded housing in an overcrowded city with constant and intense sensory stimulation is stressful, limits the individual’s personal space and makes privacy a coveted but unattainable prize, especially for the poor. There is often no reprieve or escape from the cacophony. Whereas a couple of generations ago, Cairo abounded with pleasant gardens and parks, today, there are barely any green spaces in the city and almost nowhere to escape the madding and maddening crowds. With housing beyond the means of a large proportion of young people, it has become routine for Egyptians to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s, with all that involves in terms of frustration and infantilisation.

Containing and neutralising the seething frustration and popular dissatisfaction required, like in Tunisia, harsh repression combined with sweeteners. However, the abandonment of this unspoken social contract in Egypt was greater than in Tunisia, as almost every area of life was privatised, including healthcare and education, while public services, especially schools and hospitals, were neglected to near death. This, combined with a rapidly growing population, meant that the middle class was withering on the vine, while the ranks of the poor and destitute were continuously reinforced.

Although Egypt’s official unemployment rate in the final quarter of 2010 was 9%, the true unemployment rate was significantly higher, not to mention the working destitute, partly because the Egyptian government counts people who do occasional casual work as being fully employed. Nevertheless, the official figures cannot distort the fact that 40% of the unemployed were university graduates and half of jobless Egyptians were between the age of 20 and 24.

In the build up to the attempted revolution in 2011, Egypt had greater space for opposition, criticism and dissent than Tunisia. Despite this, Tunisia has, in a very short space of time, managed to construct a vibrant democracy. In contrast, Egypt, despite the consistently large mobilisation of protesters for an extended period of time, has slipped back into an even-more repressive form of military dictatorship, which tolerates no dissent and operates predominantly through coercion and oft extreme violence.

How did this transpire?

Two factors loom large here: the role of the military and that of Islamists. Tunisia is among the minority of Arab countries that does not possess a large and politicised army. This served it well in the wake of Ben Ali’s departure. The Tunisian army lacked the interest, culture, means and appetite to exploit the chaos and seize the reins of power. In Egypt, the politicised army, which has enjoyed massive political influence since the Free Officers military coup in 1952, had too much to lose and perceived the popular calls for freedom as an existential threat to its parallel economy and society.

Another factor was the nature of the Islamist movement in both countries. Egypt has a large and largely uncompromising Islamist movement. In Tunisia, mainstream Islamists are more pragmatic and secularised, and less influential, than their Egyptian counterparts. This led to Tunisia’s Ennahda party engaging in the politics of compromise and consensus, which helped facilitate the country’s relatively smooth transition to democracy.

Beyond these immediate factors, demography also played a role. Not only is Tunisia less crowded than Egypt, its birth rates declined sooner and are far lower than Egypt’s. Despite Egypt’s rapid population growth, the fertility rate of individual women has declined significantly in recent decades, more than halving since 1960 to reach 3.4 in 2017. Nevertheless, Egypt’s per-capita birth rate is nearly double that of Tunisia’s.

The relative stabilising of Tunisia’s population, as well as its higher level of average education and lower average levels of destitution, made the country fertile for positive change. In fact, political demographers were forecasting already in 2011, contrary to the gloomy predictions of many political pundits, that Tunisia stood a “good chance” of becoming a democracy within five years. Decent leadership in civil society, trade unions and politics, as well as a symbiotic culture of consensus and compromise, managed to capitalise on these favourable conditions and delivered democracy faster than even this short estimate predicted. Of course, Tunisia is not yet out of the woods; if it fails to deliver economic welfare and social justice, the progress of recent years can be rapidly undone.

The demography of things to come

The above illustrates how the dramatic demographic changes of recent decades have exercised profound direct and indirect influence on the socioeconomic and political reality of the Arab region.

Demographic change is likely to continue to play a strong role in the region’s future. Population change optimists point to the global trend of declining population growth rates and past human ingenuity to predict that we will be able to cope with the challenges of demographic expansion until we reach peak population around mid-century.

However, this is not a foregone conclusion for everywhere in the world, including the Middle East. Many Arab-majority countries continue to have a population growth rate above the global average. This is partly because, in my analysis, although a growing number of people have woken up to the advantages of smaller families, the pressure from tradition, parents and religious conservatives to have larger families remains difficult to resist for many.

Moreover, the aridity of the region makes it extremely vulnerable to food supply shocks in other parts of the world, which could potentially become more frequent and prolonged due to the combined effects of global warming and the continued enlargement of the world’s population in terms of absolute numbers. Moreover, global and local economic inequalities are likely to intensify any crisis that occurs. This is compounded by cross-border competition for scarce water, such as the brewing conflict between the Nile Basin states over the river’s water resources, especially between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, whose population today has overtaken that of Egypt.

Just as the potato famine in 19th-century Europe, particularly in Ireland, became a famine rather than a crisis due to the massive social and economic inequalities of the time, combined with the Malthusian propensity to blame the poor for the avarice of the rich, future food shortages could be intensified by unfair local and global distribution and consumption patterns.

Demographic and environmental change could potentially lead to a perfect storm, triggering humanitarian, political and social catastrophe in large parts of the Arab region. Alternatively, the region may continue to struggle and muddle through until its population peaks, after which welfare will improve. At present, Tunisia offers the greatest hope and model for the future of the region, as does Lebanon, which has a similar demographic dynamic to Tunisia, if the current protests trigger the right kind of momentum for change and the destabilising war in neighbouring Syria does not push this fragile and diverse country over the edge.

The most promising and hopeful possibility for the region’s demography is that increasingly empowered and aware citizens will engage in voluntary birth control, which would enable the population to even out sooner than current projections, while corrupt and repressive elites will be replaced by more enlightened political, economic and social leaders who will revive the region’s development potential by utilising its relatively young and talented populations for the greater collective and individual good of all concerned.

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This article was first published by Rowaq Arabi on 23 December 2019.

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Racists exploit BDS and Israel to advance their agendas of hatred

 
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By Khaled Diab

As recent motions in the German Bundestag and US Congress reveal, both the BDS and pro-Israel movements are exploited by racists as fig leafs to further their agendas. These racists must be exposed and challenged.

Friday 24 May 2019

Taking a leaf out of the US Congress‘s playbook, Germany’s Bundestag has labelled the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic” in a non-binding resolution which enjoyed cross-party support.

Given that Germany has, in recent years, instated or participated in numerous sanctions programmes, one would think that its parliament could tell the difference between targeting a repressive regime and hating an entire people.

After all, I do not regard Germany’s earlier decision to sanction the Syrian regime for bombing its own people, or its embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its warmongering in Yemen, as expressions of anti-Arabism or Islamophobia. Instead, they are efforts to deploy ‘soft weapons’ to curb or stop these conflicts – or at the very least not to profit from them or be a party to them.

Likewise, the entire EU, including Germany, as well as Israel and many Jewish groups, boycotted Austria briefly after Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party became part of the governing coalition in 2000.

“The pattern of argument and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic… [and] recall the most terrible phase of German history,” the motion issued by the German federal parliament stated.

Although I admire Germany’s efforts to come to terms with the crimes against humanity committed by the Hitler regime, and the country’s determination to avoid a repeat of that tragedy amid a massing current of anti-Semitism, this effort to equate the present BDS movement with Germany’s dark Nazi past is way off the mark.

There is no equivalence between a totalitarian, genocidal state which stripped Jews of their rights and very nearly succeeded in exterminating European Jewry, and a civil society campaign which defends the human rights of Palestinians and opposes the decades-old Israeli occupation. Suggesting that the two are the same is tantamount to blaming the victims for their demise.

What adds insult to injury is the German far-right’s efforts to jump cynically on the anti-BDS bandwagon.

It is beyond ironic that the extremist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which claims to be Israel’s “one true friend” in the Bundestag while simultaneously stoking anti-Semitism and nurturing nostalgia for the Third Reich, has put forward the harshest alternative resolution, calling for an outright ban of BDS in Germany.

This must appear to be a can’t-lose proposition to the far-right party, which can now deflect criticism of its anti-Jewish agenda while disguising its anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in a cloak of virtuosity. Moreover, European anti-Semites supporting Israel is not as odd as it sounds because they have long regarded it as channel for removing Jews from the West.

This variety of stealthy anti-Semitism needs to be challenged as actively as open racism against Jews.

Those, like the Green party, who voted for the resolution on the progressive end of the spectrum are inflicting unforeseeable damage on German democracy, by curtailing citizens’ freedom of expression and action. It also sends the implicit message that even peaceful forms of Palestinian resistance are not acceptable in some western eyes.

That is not to say the German authorities should stop challenging and combating the poison of anti-Semitism, but they should focus on actual incidents of Judeophobia, rather than stigmatising an entire anti-occupation movement.

Although the principles of BDS are not anti-Semitic, in and of themselves, the movement can and does attract anti-Semites.

Some racists instrumentalise the movement to cover up their irrational hatred of Jews and to conceal their hateful bigotry behind a sheen of respectability. Others allow their sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people to plunge them down the rabbit hole of rabid racism.

This leads to the sorry and troubling situation in which some pro-Palestinians perpetuate the vilest and filthiest of anti-Semitic tropes, such as the myth that wealthy Jews covertly run the world through their alleged control of the global banking system, not to mention the seemingly supernatural powers they ascribe to Israel and the Mossad.

Some truly ludicrous variations of this which I have heard or encountered include the myths that the Israeli Mossad was behind everything from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group and the master puppeteer behind the Syrian civil war.

Most sickening is when a BDS supporter or pro-Palestinian sympathiser downplays or downright denies the Holocaust, either by claiming the Holocaust never took place or by insultingly insinuating that the Zionist movement played a role in the persecution of Jews in order to win sympathy for their cause, thereby simultaneously blaming the victims and absolving the perpetrators.

A recent example of this was a short video downplaying the extent of Nazi extermination drive and purporting to reveal “the truth behind the Holocaust and how Zionism benefited from it”, which was posted by AJ+ Arabic last week. Al Jazeera quickly deleted the offensive tweet and suspended the two journalists whom it said made and published it.

It is imperative that efforts to combat and weed out this insidious racism are scaled up, both in the Arab world and the West, for the integrity of the pro-Palestinian movement and for the safety and security of Jews.

While the BDS movement is clearly not racist, it is not necessarily as effective as some think, nor as ethically straightforward as its advocates believe, and a convincing moral case can be made for supporting, opposing or modifying it.

One thorny question relates to the issue of fairness. Although it is completely understandable that Palestinians would focus on their own cause and engage in a boycott of their oppressor, it is less clear why outsiders would choose this cause over others.

For many pro-Palestinian activists, their support is part of a broader humanist worldview that opposes injustice and oppression wherever it occurs and regardless of whomever commits it, such as is the case with Jewish supporters of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, Palestine and Israel are of enormous symbolic, political and historical importance, both in the Middle East and the West.

However, some are guilty of selective outrage and the hypocrisy that accompanies it. For instance, there are those who rail against the crimes and injustices of the Israeli occupation while defending the crimes and injustices of, for instance, the Assad regime.

Then, there is the conundrum of collective punishment, especially when it comes to the cultural and academic boycott of Israel and the blanket “anti-normalisation” movement in the Arab world, which impacts even Israeli progressives, such as celebrated author and academic Shlomo Sand, and sometimes even Israeli journalists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, such as Amira Hass.

And, as the anti-normalisation camp becomes more vocal in Palestine, on the back of a quarter of a century of disappointment and decades of dispossession, this also inhibits joint action between Palestinian and Israeli civil society and citizens, as several peace activists confessed to me during a recent visit to Ramallah.

But the reality is that Palestinians will not be freed by BDS alone. In addition to a targeted boycott of the institutions that facilitate the occupation, there needs to be targeted engagement between Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews. The goal of the conflict needs to shift from vanquishing a determined enemy who refuses to bow down to gaining a steadfast ally to bow to in mutual respect.

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