Billionaires and the welfare of nations

 
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Occupy Wall Street protester in 2011.
Image: Glenn Halog Source: Flickr

The super rich are leaving only the scraps for everyone else to fight over, which is fuelling a mounting wave of intolerance as minorities and migrants are scapegoated for falling wellbeing. For the welfare of all, we must end these stark wealth inequalities before it leads to unmanageable social unrest.

Saturday 20 June 2020

Everyone has it tough during the COVID-19 pandemic and we are all in the same boat – this has been a common refrain throughout the crisis.

It is true that we are all aboard the Titanic together. However, some are riding first class, some are riding third class, and others are in the galley below rowing… Oh, and there are not enough lifeboats to go round.

In reality, the super rich are not only shielded from this crisis by their wealth, which enables them to shelter from the virus on superyachts or escape it on private jets, some are even enjoying an unprecedented bounty during these difficult times. This is especially the case in the United States.

During the coronavirus crisis, US billionaires accrued a huge windfall of more than $583 billion in the three months between mid-March and mid-June, according to the latest report by the progressive Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness. At a time when at least 45 million Americans are out of work, tens of thousands have died of the coronavirus (which has has killed black Americans at three times the rate of whites), and 265 million people around the world are at risk of dying of hunger, the United States minted 29 additional billionaires, according to the report.

While frontline workers risk their health and lives to keep society functioning and care for the sick, the biggest financial winners by far were America’s top five billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison) who saw their wealth grow by a total of $101.7 billion, or 26%.  Bezos and Zuckerberg saw their combined fortunes grew by nearly $76 billion, or 13% of the $584 billion total, according to the IPS study.

Whenever anyone, including myself, criticises the obscene wealth of billionaires, there are those who rush in to defend them, arguing that critics are just envious and that billionaires deserve this success and earned their vast fortunes.

But is this actually the case?

Like a superhero origin myth, there is a typical narrative that surrounds billionaires, especially those in the tech industry. It goes something like this: X, working in their bedroom/garage/dorm, came up with a brilliant idea, against the odds, brought it to market and is now enjoying the fruits of their brilliance.

It is true that quite a few billionaires started off with nothing (or at least with a more modest fortune), and many did exhibit inspiring brilliance in their early careers. However, is the acumen of these entrepreneurs really worth so much more than everyone else’s labour – combined?

Unimaginably, it would take an American household earning the mean $60,000 a year nearly 2.5 million years to accumulate the estimated $147bn which Jeff Bezos is estimated to be worth… if they did not spend a penny. A low-paid Amazon worker on the shopfloor would take more than 4 million years of saving their entire income to assemble their boss’s fortune.

And these are workers in the world’s richest country. Now try to imagine how long it would take a poor worker in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa to make this kind of money.

It goes without saying that nobody’s ideas or work ethic or vision is worth thousands or even millions of years of everyone else’s labour. This notion is particularly insulting in this time of crisis, when the people society depends on to function are not tycoons, top CEOs or hedge fund managers but nurses, doctors, emergency workers, care-givers, supermarket staff, delivery people and utility workers.

Moreover, there is almost inevitably an ugly and underexposed underbelly which casts serious doubt on the idea that billionaires “earned” their unfathomable fortunes. While there are certainly “good billionaires” and “bad billionaires”, there are no billionaires, as far as I can ascertain, who made their billions fair and square, without employing some ethically dubious practices.

These practices may include underpaying or overworking staff, monopolising the productivity gains delivered by their workers by keeping the financial gains to themselves and automating jobs, exporting  jobs, stifling competition, and even exercising monopolies or near-monopolies.

One area where the billionaire class and large corporations have been laughing all the way to the bank, and where the rest of society has been crying in misery, is taxation. While ordinary wage earners in advanced economies, especially those with a robust social safety net, disproportionately bear the burden of taxation, corporate tax rates and taxes on high incomes and capital have hit historic lows, with a de facto regressive tax system increasingly becoming the new normal.

The results of this skewed, unjust system are clear to see. The fattest cats in America, for example, saw their wealth bloat by over 1,100% between 1990 and 2018, according to the Institute for Policy Studies report, yet their proportional tax obligations decreased a spectacular 79% over the same timescale.

Meanwhile, the rest of society is left to fight over the scraps, which has fuelled ugly identity politics and the massive resurgence of racism and xenophobia as minorities and migrants are incorrectly blamed and scapegoated for the corrosion of the majority’s welfare which was largely caused by the gluttony of the super rich and large corporations, not just in America but in many other parts of the world.

Over and above this, the unprecedented mobility of capital and wealthy individuals, facilitated by decades of deregulation and the absence of a global tax regimen or coordination of tax policies, has enabled many corporations and billionaires to transfer their profits to tax paradises, allowing them to dodge their tax burdens and, with them, their social responsibilities. This has also forced a race to the bottom between countries fearful of losing out to tax havens.

Even though corporate tax rates are at an all-time low, the IMF estimates that governments are deprived of up to $600 billion a year in corporate taxes at the reduced rates due to the kind of clever bookkeeping that has been made possible through decades of financial deregulation and walks the fine line between legal ‘tax avoidance’ and illegal ‘tax evasion’. Economists calculate that 40% of the profits of multinationals are artificially transferred to tax havens from higher-tax countries, especially in Europe.

To add insult and injury, not only has deregulation devastated the welfare state, but also among the biggest recipients of state welfare are, paradoxically, the richest, who benefit the most from the rescue packages designed to pull us out of crises, especially in the US. This occurred during the Great Recession following the financial meltdown of 2008-9 and is happening again during the current coronavirus crisis.

More enlightened billionaires have arrived at the realisation that such vast concentrations of wealth are not only bad news for society, they are bad for the wealthy. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are both advocates of higher taxes for the rich, but the rates they consider fair are nowhere near enough to bridge the inequality chasm that has emerged, rebuild our tattered social safety nets, lift the world’s poorest out of poverty and heal the environmental devastation caused by such extremes of wealth.

Another solution is for billionaires to voluntarily divest. Buffet and Gates have not only pledged to give away their money, they have established the so-called Giving Pledge, where they encourage other tycoons to also part with their fortunes. However, the response to the initiative among the mega rich, or what I like to think of as wealth extremists, has been lacklustre at best, representing a tiny drop in the ocean compared with the total wealth billionaires control. Meanwhile, those who have signed up to the pledge are generally seeing their fortunes grow far faster than they are giving them away.

Besides, philanthropy is no substitute for taxation and social justice. Not only does it demean people by turning what should be their rights into acts of charity and largesse from the rich, it also puts what should be a collective decision-making process on societal priorities in the hands of unelected individuals, who may or may not be concerned about the greater good.

Moreover, this gigantic concentration of wealth gives billionaires the kind of political clout that makes a mockery of the one person, one vote foundation of democracy. We are used to the business class representing a powerful oligarchy in authoritarian and autocratic regimes, such as in Russia or the Arab world. In democracies, the massive lobbying power, both direct and indirect, of the billionaires and corporations erodes democratic governance and undermines the will of the electorate.

What we need are not half-baked efforts to make being a billionaire undesirable – we must make becoming a billionaire impossible. This requires a collective, global effort to introduce “equanomics“.

This can be achieved through a variety of mechanisms, from a coordinated taxation system so progressive that there remains no incentive or possibility to build up such vast fortunes, to enacting an actual cap on wealth and incomes.

This will both narrow inequalities and enable societies around the world to repair and expand their social safety nets, as well as to better reward those working in neglected vital sectors. Moreover, it will enhance the incentive for constructive, socially beneficial innovation because people will feel that the fruits of their labour are not just going to make fat cats fatter.

Failure to take corrective action will lead to greater social unrest and conflict as people’s welfare is further degraded. While minorities are currently paying, and will continue to pay, the heaviest price for this inequality, the super wealthy, as history has shown repeatedly, are not immune to the wrath of those they impoverish.

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This is the updated version of an article that was first published by Al Jazeera on 26 May 2020.

 

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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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Living in a nightmare: Gaza’s unending tragedy

 
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Boštjan Videmšek

Trauma, depression, destitution and hopelessness are the daily realities with which Gaza’s besieged population must contend.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Sunday 8 December 2019

It all began with a savage detonation. It was still the dead of night, but the sky above Gaza lit up and the ground quaked. On 12 November 2019, at 4am sharp, the Israeli army bombed the house of Baha Abu al-Atta – one of Islamic Jihad’s leading operatives. Soon one explosion followed another.

The bafflingly blue firmament was streaked with long dirty traces of the rockets the Islamic Jihad was firing in retaliation. Every now and then, the ground heaved with the force of a sharp detonation. The Israeli F-16s were bombing the positions of the second strongest force within the Gaza Strip. The Israeli bombs were also hitting a number of civilian targets, killing 35 people before a ceasefire was finally declared.

The Israeli side suffered not a single casualty, with 90% of the primitive Islamic Jihad rockets had been intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system. The air was redolent with smoke and the impending possibility of the next cycle of war. A war which, in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, had already turned one of the world’s most densely populated territories into an open-air hospice.

Just a mistake

After the sun had already sunk into the Mediterranean for the day, the apartment in one of Gaza City’s most desolate blocks was suffused with a foreboding silence. The pictures and posters on the walls of the modestly furnished flat were telling a sad and all-too-typical Palestinian story – the story of a “shahid”, or “martyr”. It is a story virtually every Palestinian family in Gaza is painfully familiar with.

“Over here, it’s like living in a tomb,” a 38-year-old woman named Nemra Maysoon explained quietly. “Anyone of us could get killed at any time. Our lives are clearly worthless.”

Last July, Nemra lost her 14-year-old son Amir to an Israeli drone strike. Also killed was Amir’s schoolmate and best friend Loai Kuhail.

 “That morning, Amir asked me for his lunch money. I gave him 10 shekels for a shawarma sandwich and a Coke. I knew he and Loai wanted to have a walk around, since school was out. They first played a bit of football. Loai was incredibly gifted, and Amir had to take it easy because of heart problems. To think we were afraid of football killing him,” Nemra gasped with irony. Maha Kuhail, Loai’s mother, was quick to gently take her hand.

On that heinous day, Amir and Loai had lunch and decided to take a few selfies atop one of Gaza’s higher buildings. As soon as they snapped a few pictures, an Israeli drone ‘took control’ of the scene. An explosion swiftly followed, its shrapnels instantly annihilating both of the boys. The Israeli authorities later ventured it had been a mistake – just like when they recently killed eight members of a Palestinian family during a bombing raid.

“I was at home when I heard screaming from the street. I immediately sensed something was very badly wrong. Since I knew Amir was out there, I was very alarmed. I heard people shouting Amir was dead. I first couldn’t and then wouldn’t believe it,” the grieving mother recalled. “Somebody told me he was still alive. I ran over to the hospital, where they directed me straight to the morgue. There was blood everywhere. The only thing left was to give him a hug. Why did they have to kill him? Who gave them the right? All he wanted was to play football. He was a huge Real Madrid fan, and Loai loved Barcelona… They were both such good, innocent boys.”

Tears, twitches, back-to-the-wall stutters and a lot of bitten-back words; looking at the poor woman going through her ordeal again, it was as if no time had passed at all.

“Sixteen months later, and we still haven’t received any sort of apology, let alone any attempt at compensation,” Maha Kuhail interjected. “Amir and Loai were simply a mistake. We did take legal action against the Israeli army – with the help of B’tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation… But what good can that do? We have been ruined, all of us that remain.”

Maha, Loai’s mother, is 35 and works as a primary school teacher. Ever since she lost her son, she finds it increasingly difficult to focus. Each day presents a new battle to find sufficient purpose to carry on. She devotes all her energy to her three remaining sons and her pupils.

“We have nothing to do with politics. All we want is to live, to survive. There is nothing resembling a normal life in Gaza, there are no prospects for young people. I was hoping Loai might become a successful footballer, a professional. I was thinking he might get to play abroad. All our dreams have been shattered in a split second,” Maha went on. She told me that each and every chair and table in her school reminded her of her son.

“I am a strong woman, but I had to visit a psychologist for almost half a year. I was unable to teach for a whole month. Now I am haunted at every step by the fear of further loss. I have become a rather panicky character. I am anxious about my three remaining boys. It’s a dreadful feeling, and it is with me pretty much all the time. Ever since the tragedy, we’ve been sleeping in the same room. We are huddling together. We so want to leave this place – we are surrounded by nothing but death and misery,” the words poured out of the visibly traumatised woman.

Maha Kuhail and Nemra Maysoon have become friends following the deaths of their sons, for emotional support and to commemorate their dead boys. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

 

During the grieving process, she and Nemra Maysoon – Amir’s mother – have formed a close attachment, a sort of a pain-based alliance. It has fallen to the two mothers to continue the friendship of their murdered sons. Without each other, they were both quick to profess, they would be unable to keep going.

Yet their pain is not only enduring, it seems to be increasing. The fear of further loss is omnipresent – all the more so for being based on an all too real probability distribution. Every time they hear the sound of Israeli planes above or the inhuman screech of the killer drones, their children are thrown into a panic. And they are mostly unable to help.

The final nail in the coffin

This new escalation of terror in Gaza is really anything but new. It has been in effect ever since last year. That was when many of Gaza’s inhabitants decided to marking the 70th anniversary of the Nakba with the so-called ‘Great March of Return’.

A year and a half ago, Gazans – as many as 80% of whom are now wholly reliant on international humanitarian help, with more than a half of them unemployed – began heading for the long concrete wall strewn with watchtowers and sniper nests which separates the Gaza Strip from the rest of humanity.

Even though the marchers were unarmed, the protests were soon washed in blood. Israeli army snipers began picking away at the protesters that dared venture closest to the frontier. Many of them had, indeed, been sent out there by Hamas, the militant Islamic movement which had taken over control of Gaza by force in 2007 and went on to significantly contribute to the tragedy of its 2 million residents.

But the Israeli fire was not limited solely to the protesters who dared get closest to the border.

According to Médecins sans frontières (MSF) data, the 18 months of the ‘Great March of Return’ saw the killing of more than 200 Palestinians, with around 8,000 wounded. MSF staff have provided treatment to more than 5,500 of them, I was told by Dr Fayez el-Barawi at the MSF clinic in the centre of Gaza.

The vast majority of the ones treated were suffering from gunshot wounds below the knees. Many of them will never be able to walk or work again, merely for daring to express an opinion. Or even just for trying to help the wounded.

Such was the case of Mohamed Masavabi, aged 26. “I was working as a taxi driver,” he remembered after completing the day’s physiotherapy session at the MSF clinic. “That Friday, some friends asked me to take them close to the border for the protests. When we got to within 3km of the border, chaos already reigned. The traffic had ground to a halt. We could hear shots being fired. People were screaming everywhere. Then, right in front of my car, a small boy was knocked down by a teargas canister. I grabbed a plastic water bottle and jumped out to help him. I can’t imagine how I could have posed a threat to anybody. A few moments later, I was hit by a bullet punching through both of my legs. It felt as if I was being electrocuted. I tumbled to the ground. I lost consciousness for four hours.”

Today, Mohamed is able to walk, though just barely, and with the help of crutches and special leg stabilisers. He is not fit enough for any kind of work. He relies on the help of his extended family, which had lost 26 members during the various Israeli military operations in Gaza since 2009.

“This is war – it just never stops,” Mohamed went on. He added that his vision for Gaza had long been robbed of hope.

Mohamed with his friend, Maisara.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“That is why the young people here are protesting with such vehemence. The only thing we have to lose are our lives, pitiful as they are. We have also seen a lot of suicides. We are completely on our own. The Arab world is happy to exploit us for their own political purposes, though they really don’t care about us at all,” Mohamed concluded, leaving for the day the clinic filled with men and boys tottering on severely mutilated legs.

In spite of his horrendous injuries, Mohamed has since begun taking active part in the protests.

His friend Maisara seemed to be much of the same mind. Maisara, 29, was gravely wounded as far back as the first protest in eastern Gaza last year in March. The protest was against Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This represented a huge, and not merely symbolic, blow to the Palestinians, as well as the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

When the Americans decided to legitimise the Jewish settlements on the (occupied) West Bank, the Palestinian question was simply struck off the menus of international diplomacy.

An epidemic of antibiotic resistance

“One of the bullets went through both my legs. I collapsed. All I can remember is unbelievable pain and a lot of screaming… Many of the people around me had been wounded as well. Some of them didn’t make it,” recalled Maisara, as the flies buzzed along the open wounds below his knees.

Maisara, a father of five, was now eking out a subsistence as an electrician. His legs were mending very poorly, infection followed infection. And his case was far from an isolated one. Médecins sans Frontières staff have long recorded a highly elevated, all but epidemic resistance to antibiotics in Gaza and some other parts of the Middle East.

The development has been linked with the rampant overuse of antibiotics in these parts, where they are seen as something of a panacea.

This would certainly explain the baffling way most of those wounded during the protests failed to recover even after eighteen months of therapy. The condition of many of them has actually deteriorated. Their doctors believe this could be down to either the environment, especially robust strains of bacteria, the deliberate use of dirty weapons or a combination of the two.

“Ninety percent of the patients in our care have similar gunshot wounds. It would be hard to deny a distinct pattern,” Amira Karim said candidly, talking to us in her modest office located right across from the therapy gym. Karim serves as a psychological counsellor at one of the four MSF clinics in the Gaza area.

Around these parts, the issue of mental health is still largely taboo, each instance carrying with it a heavy burden of social stigma. In her daily dealings with hundreds and hundreds of casualties, Karim has started noticing steeply increasing levels of depression. And no wonder, given the prevailing long-term trauma of hopelessness, exhaustion and utter abandonment. In Karim’s words, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also rampant among the population. A staggering 20 percent of her patients are seriously considering suicide.

“With these types of gunshot wounds, the pain is constant, chronic. Severe depression is mingled with physical suffering, and the combination is often unbearable. The medicine we give them clearly doesn’t work. And then you have the overwhelming pressure of the environment – I mean, the sheer all-devouring economic catastrophe of it all,” Karim added.

“The men are expected to take care of their families,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “Yet their injuries prevent them from doing so. I have to say, my patients are not committed to this life. They are simply in too much pain. They are also often completely isolated in their suffering. And the authorities have opted to ignore their plight.”

 Living in a nightmare

In the space of a dozen years, the Israeli blockade has managed to transform Gaza into a vast prison camp, where the children are nurtured on pure hate. This in itself is a guarantee against any imaginable normal future.

Every time the skies above Gaza are ripped asunder by an Israeli war plane, the trauma, both personal and collective, widens in scope. Every time rockets are fired towards Israel, the deployers are sending the message that they are prepared to keep sacrificing the fate of the civilian population in the name of their political goals.

Compounding the problem is the distinct split in the Palestinian electorate. What is more, Hamas is actually operating in perfect symbiosis with the Israeli authorities. To stay in control, it needs (and helps maintain) a spectacular human tragedy, which is also furthered by the active passivity of pretty much the entire international community, including much of the Arab world, which has for decades exploited the Palestinian question as an alibi for its own political and military machinations.

“There is no such thing as a political horizon in Gaza. There is no such thing as hope. Twenty years ago, we believed in ‘the political process’. We used to have a dream. But now we are living in a nightmare,” the president of the Palestinian NGO Network Amjad al Shava told us a day before the latest bombings. “The blockade has cut us off from the world.

“And worst of all are the divisions within the Palestinian community itself. An entire generation has never left this gigantic prison. Our children have pushed through three different wars. We used to be exporters of food, and now we are starving… The world seems to have forgotten us,” he laments.

This humanitarian and activist was quick to assure us that his support was reserved only for a political solution, a peaceful one. But such an outcome now seems almost impossible to imagine.

Fish and sitting ducks

As Gaza was being ravaged by falling bombs while launching outdated and ineffectual rockets back toward Israel, the dusty streets of the Palestinian enclave were empty. The people here have developed their own specific defence mechanisms, which long ago hardened into second nature.

The schools were closed down and only a few shops were open. The mosques were awash with political speeches. On some of the narrow streets of the former refugee camps, which had long become bustling popular quarters, children were chasing each other among heaps of refuse. An old man was having his tea while contemplating a sky riddled with rocket traces. The detonations frightened flocks of screeching birds to take flight. An emaciated white dog was playing with a pair of young cats next to mostly deserted fishing shacks by the stench-ridden shore. An unusually strong autumn sun was reflected from the surface of the sea, where a few fishing boats floated like sitting ducks in spite of the bombing.

Bombs or no bombs, one still had to make a living. “I used to have a profound love for the sea. But now I hate it,” said Khadir Saidi, 31, talking to us in the modest seaside dwelling he shares with 14 other members of his family.

Khadir was a fisherman, or more to the point: a former fisherman.

On 20 February 2019, he and his cousin took their small fishing vessel out. Khadir had been doing so ever since he was 13. They cast their nets some nine nautical miles from the shore. Back then, Israel had limited the fishing area to within 12 miles. According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian fishermen were allowed to fish up to 20 miles from the shore, but the Israeli authorities have taken to setting the current limit as they went along, depending on ‘the situation’. At times, they had been known to set the number to a mere three miles.

Around nine in the evening, Khadir hoisted the first set of nets from the sea. It looked like the day’s outing would be a successful one. But only for a moment. Some Israeli patrol boats were fast approaching. Khadir had been here before: once, he had been arrested and spent 18 months in Israeli jails denied any kind of a judicial process, only to end up losing his ship and fishing nets. And so he, perhaps not unreasonably, decided to flee. He and his cousin had barely started turning the boat when Khadir was  shot.

“The Israelis opened fire with rubber bullets. Two of them hit me in the eyes – one bullet in one eye each. I immediately went blind. The pain was unbearable,” recalled Khadir, whose blindness now prevented him from leaving his apartment, let alone setting out to sea.

The doctors in Israel and Egypt had informed him they were unable to help. “Maybe I could regain some sight if I had a lot of money. Enough to afford an operation at the special clinic in Germany. Or Russia,” Khadir mused quietly.

Khadir and his cousin were not the only crew arrested at sea that fateful day. All the Palestinian fishermen were accused of fishing out of bounds, something the fishermen fervently deny to this day . Yet in a system of apartheid such as this, their words are of little consequence.

“Look,” Khadir’s father, Marwan, splurted angrily, showing us the rubber bullets that had taken his son’s sight and his ability to support his large family.

The family has now found itself in a very difficult situation. “They are trying to make life hell for Gaza’s fishermen,” Khadir went on in a steady, resigned voice. “They are taking away our boats, so we flee as soon as we see them. Around here, fishing is an old tradition. It used to be that a large number of people used to live off the sea. Now it is only a few hundred. The rest have had to sell their fishing boats just to survive. And even the ones who remain are struggling. Not only on account of the Israeli blockade, but also because there is less fish. And the sea becomes more polluted each year.”

In 2017, the Israeli Navy wounded Khadir Saidi in the leg. Then, they put him in prison. He is now reliant on assistance from a Qatari humanitarian foundation. The $100 per months he receives is his only source of income. After being released, Khadir revved up his boat to join the protests against the Israelis. But only because Hamas, the protests’ ‘sponsor’, gave him some money to buy the oil to power his vessel.

Soon after, the real tragedy struck.

“The Israelis are doing it because they can. It is part of the occupation, part of the war,” Khadir’s father raged. His fury was all the more understandable because he now has to fend for the entire family. Although he has been a fisherman for 45 years, he believes things have never been worse for the fishing sector in Gaza.

With bittersweet nostalgia, he recalls the  days before the Second Intifada (which began in September 2000), the blowback from which decidedly worsened the fishermen’s condition. After the withdrawal of the Israeli settlers in the summer of 2005 and after Hamas took over two years later, the blockade was imposed. It has caused widespread decline and decrepitude.

In addition to Gaza being the world’s largest open-air hospice, as I observed earlier, it may also be one of the world’s largest ongoing experiments to test the limits of human endurance.

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Tunisia: Freedom and the pursuit of unhappiness

 
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By Khaled Diab

With greater freedom has come greater unhappiness in Tunisia. Behind this apparent paradox is economic hardship and nostalgia for a past that never was.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 6 November 2018

In these dark times for the Middle East and with democracy on the retreat even in its oldest and most established strongholds, Tunisia is the exception that proves hope is not just for optimistic fools.

With the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and swept the region with its infectious demands for economic empowerment, social dignity and political freedom, this small North African country is the exception that proves that despotic rule need not be the rule in the Arab world.

Across the region, many pro-democracy, progressive and liberal activists, opposition figures, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens who believe in freedom, Tunisia inspires them to believe that they are not being delusional in believing their own countries can be reformed.

Over the past almost two years of living in Tunisia, I have found the country’s newfound freedom remarkable, as have other Egyptians based here or visiting. For a start, despite fears that freedom would lead to extremist-led chaos, Tunisia has managed, unlike so many revolutions throughout history, to maintain stability and pass or draft landmark legislation to ensure fundamental rights and equality.

“Tunisia has a vibrant civil society, exceptional record on women’s rights in the Arab world, as well as, overall, a politics, while far from perfect, that is continuously being negotiated forward,” contends Amro Ali, an Egyptian sociology professor whom I met during his recent visit to Tunisia. “What started with them was no ordinary feat; they raised the standards and they’ll be held up to it. So they will be treated like a political beacon, whether they like it or not.”

The street continues to be a major pillar of Tunisian democracy and political direct action continues apace, albeit with less intensity than in the heady early days of the revolution. Barely a week goes by without a demonstration or a strike somewhere in the country, to protest economic hardship, unemployment, government action or government inaction.

Tunisians, both friends and strangers, have plenty of opinions on politics and other issues and they have no reservations about sharing them, even during brief encounters at cafes, parties or on the street, especially when they find out you are an Egyptian.

Although I have no personal pre-revolutionary reference point, Tunisians tell me that this is a far cry from how things used to be in the days of the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time, and I am regularly impressed by the depth and breadth of public debate on the airwaves.

Taxi drivers have been a colourful, engaging, eccentric and diverse source of political commentary, and I have compiled enough amusing anecdotes to write a short book. But this was not always the case. One taxi driver admitted to me that, in the past, he would have been afraid to even think Ben Ali’s name while on the job, whereas now he had turned his taxi into a political salon on wheels.

Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time. Whereas there has been a trend in the media of maturer democracies towards dumbing down their content, Tunisia has been wisening up its coverage. For instance, many FM music radio stations in Europe and America either carry no political content or cut it up into tiny, bite-sized morsels, out of fear their audiences will switch off. Not so in Tunisia, where even the most commercial music stations carry hours of news, in-depth coverage, discussion and debate.

Despite the immense political, social and cultural progress, the sense of widespread disillusionment and despondency is palpable, and this is confirmed by surveys and polls. The number of Tunisians I encounter who are unhappy with the situation, are sceptical about the path the country is taking and are pessimistic about the future is truly astonishing.

“I think that the Tunisians had built up high expectations about what the revolution could bring, but the political class quickly disappointed,” observes Sarah Ben Hamadi, a blogger, former journalist and deputy secretary-general of the Tunis-based Democratic Lab think tank. “The economic crisis felt by the middle class, which is making the daily lives of Tunisians increasingly more difficult, makes it harder to appreciate progress in terms of freedom.”

Although Tunisia’s economy has slowed down, it continues to grow, but not at a rate that has enabled it to make any serious dent in joblessness numbers nor to improve people’s sense of economic welfare. In fact, with a weakening currency, rising inflation and the phasing in of austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and raising of fuel and other prices, Tunisians feel worse off today than before the revolution.

“[Tunisians] don’t really count social and political progress as wealth,” asserts Karim Benabdallah, a blogger, activist and photographer. “They usually see things in their own narrow perspective.”

Tunisia’s economic woes have hit young people, who spearheaded the revolution but still make up the bulk of the unemployed, particularly hard, leading them to “feel neglected, unheard and invisible,” according to Omezzine Khelifa, the founder of Mobdiun, which researches the status of youth from neglected neighbourhoods in Tunis and seeks to find ways to empower them politically.

“Those who live in marginalised areas feel the state is not doing anything for them and have witnessed how any form of protest can turn against them in a violent way,” she adds. “They say police is not here to protect us, rather to harm us.”

Although Ben Ali’s repressive state is largely gone and protest is a protected constitutional right, police brutality and violence remain a problem, with class and age affecting how the police treat citizens, as reflected in how the police overreact to protests in poorer neighbourhoods.

In addition, youth in marginalised areas are more likely than their better-off counterparts to experience other forms of violence, including from their peers on the street and domestic violence at home. The alienation and frustration feeding this violence can also be turned inwards. According to Mobdiun, between 6% and 10% of teenagers in one poorer neighbourhood of Tunis have attempted to commit suicide. More alarmingly, similar suicide rates exist among youth in better-off areas.

This points to an existential crisis among young Tunisians, with dreams of emigration their escapism from their dispiriting reality, with some numbing the pain and the unbearable heaviness of being through self-medication. “I said to myself: I’ll find a job, I’ll manage, I’ll find… and nothing, I did not find anything,” confessed one young man who spoke to Mobdiun. “A friend comes to me and suggests we ‘fly’ on a train (i.e. ride on the outside) because we have no money, we are obliged, how else will we buy cannabis to smoke in the evening and to escape a little?”

Some find escapism in the past. While many young Tunisians appreciate the freedom under which they are growing up, others see it as overrated, especially since a whole generation is now emerging that never experienced the bad old days first hand. “The social and political progress seen by outsiders, it’s honestly a big joke,” contends Malek, a law student. “It only proves that they have no idea about how it used to be before.”

This sense of a paradise lost actually originates with and is more common amongst older people, who have established a veritable nostalgia industry, which is slowly trickling down the age pyramid. To hear Tunisian nostalgists speak, one is left with the impression that everything was better prior to the revolution: the economy was better, people were better off, people had a greater sense of civic duty, etc.

Some of those who subscribe to this sort of narrative do so out of frustration at their present hardships or fear of what lies ahead. Others do so as an expression of their authoritarian tendencies. They believe, or have been conditioned to believe, that Arabs do not understand or are not ready for democracy, and that they need a “strong” leader to keep them in check. The number of times I have heard this view, often combined with admiration for the likes of Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi or, worse, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, is shocking.

“The fact that no leader has emerged also means that there is always a certain nostalgia for a time when the president enjoyed great authority,” explains Sarah Ben Hamadi.

However, what nostalgists do not seem to comprehend is that if the calibre of leadership that has emerged since the revolution has been found wanting compared with the Ben Ali era, which I am not sure is the case, this is, in reality, the legacy of decades of dictatorial monopoly over power and the accompanying elimination or sidelining of a viable opposition. In addition, Tunisia is no longer a one-man show and is founded on consensus politics and pluralism, which appears messier but is fairer and holds leaders to greater account and scrutiny.

A similar confusing of cause and effect, of symptom and disease, afflicts the question of economic welfare and prosperity. If life was so great under Ben Ali, the question begs itself: why was there so much desperation, symbolically represented by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and Hosni Kalaya, and why did Tunisians rise up to demand not just freedom but also bread?

Linking the current economic crisis to the revolution, as many Tunisians do, is wishful thinking, in my analysis. Decades of economic mismanagement and crony capitalism cannot be reversed in a few short years.

If anything, the reason why Tunisia’s economy is performing relatively poorly, failing to create enough jobs and to distribute wealth more evenly, is not because the revolution demolished what came before but because the revolution left the country’s previous economic architecture too intact. In fact, I am personally convinced that if Ben Ali were still in power, the Tunisian economy would likely be in crisis.

In addition to Tunisia’s own internal faults, there is the regional and global dimension contributing to its economic woes. Not only is the fallout of the global economic crisis of 2008-09 still hurting Tunisia, the upheavals and conflicts across the region, especially in neighbouring Libya, have had a negative impact on the Tunisian economy.

The austerity-driven approach of international financial institutions are making a bad situation worse, as is the unfair structure of the global currency regimen, which excessively rewards rich countries and penalises poorer ones. In fact, with an economy barely larger than that of a multinational corporation, Tunisia is being crushed by the old titans of the West, who are desperately clinging on to their old privileges, and the new titans, foremost among them China, who are carving out a space for themselves, not just at Europe and America’s expense, but more brutally at the expense of developing countries with higher labour costs and smaller economies.

Constructing an a-historical narrative about the splendour of the Tunisia of Dictatorship Past will not restore a lustre which never existed. Instead, if believed by enough Tunisians, it risks leading to the Tunisia of Dictatorship Future, and the deconstruction or destruction of the most significant gains the revolution has delivered: freedom, dignity and collective decision-making.

The creativity, intelligence, wisdom and guts that overthrew a dictator and built a vibrant democracy should and can be harnessed to develop an economy that serves all Tunisians.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 18 October 2018.

 

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Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

_____

The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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The truth about Islamic reformations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islam needs a reformation for Muslim societies to develop and prosper, is one of those rare convictions shared by both Islamophiles and Islamophobes. Tunisia has done just that: radically reformed its brand of Islam and established a vibrant democracy to boot, yet prosperity eludes it. Why?

This protester spray paints the question: “What are you waiting for?”
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

 Thursday 18 January 2018

Seven years after the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been out on the streets once again, in one of the most sustained waves of protest since the 2010/11 revolution.

Paraphrasing the calls demanding the removal of the president in January 2011, the demonstrators of January 2018 have been chanting: “The people want to topple the budget.”

The 2018 budget fuelling public anger led to spikes in value-added tax and social security contributions and a planned slashing of the budget deficit demanded by the IMF, which will cause Tunisia’s poor continued pain. In a bid to counter public anger, the government of President Beji Caid Essebsi unveiled plans to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

But the upheavals in Tunisia should, by right, not be happening, according to the received wisdom. Public intellectuals and media celebrities in the West, as well as many Muslim reformers, have been informing us for many years that Islam desperately needs a reformation. This would enable Muslims to shake off benighted Islamic dogma and embrace democracy, heralding an era of freedom and prosperity.

For example, more than a dozen years ago, Thomas Friedman, the guru of hollow, superficial punditry, urged Muslims to embark on a Lutheranesque Reformation to create “an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics” – never mind that Martin Luther was a fundamentalist zealot and his reformation plunged Europe into generations of war and conflict.

Friedman also believed that America could expedite this reform process towards an Islamic enlightenment by bombing Iraq and resurrecting it as a beacon of freedom, free markets and democracy –  and we all saw how well that worked out.

Although American ordnance and weapons, unsurprisingly, set Iraq back generations, some countries have found their own way towards democracy and a reformed Islam without the need for trillion-dollar American wars.

Tunisia has, over the past seven years, built up a vibrant and functioning democracy, which has not only avoided the nightmare counter-revolutions and wars which have consumed other countries in the region whose people dared to dream of a better tomorrow, but it also guarantees an impressive range of fundamental freedoms for Tunisian citizens.

Moreover, Tunisia boasts more female representatives than the United States: almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. In addition, Tunisia possesses an essential plank of social democracy which has been almost completely dismantled in America: a vibrant trade unions movement.

As for reinventing Islam, Tunisia has been doing that for the past century and a half, which has led to a distinctly Tunisian brand of the religion. In the 19th century, numerous Tunisian intellectuals and activists sought ways to reconcile their faith with modernity and science. In the 1950s, the government led by liberation leader Habib Bourguiba secularised the country and introduced a radical reformist personal status law which equalised the relationship between men and women and banned polygamy.

Fears that reforms would be slowed or reversed by the revolution have proved unfounded. Rather than Islamise society, Tunisian society has secularised the country’s main Islamic party Ennahdha, which has gone from an overtly Islamist platform to reinvent itself as a party of ‘Muslim democrats’.

In recent months, Tunisia has rolled out an impressive package of reforms which will have profound implications on the local brand of Islam, and perhaps Islam in other parts of the Muslim world.

Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

In addition, the government has removed the bureaucratic hurdle that prevented Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Most ambitiously of all, Tunisia is pursuing legislation that will grant women equal inheritance rights to men, which has provoked the ire of the conservative Muslim establishment elsewhere, including Sunni Islam’s leading institution, Al Azhar.

Despite this impressive political, social, cultural and religious progress, Tunisia’s economic fortunes have not kept pace, the treasure at the end of Friedman’s freedom rainbow has failed to materialise. The economy still grows, but more sluggishly than before, while inflation and unemployment remain high.

So how come Tunisia has not been able to cash in on its reforms?

In my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, I offer an explanation for this apparent paradox. At one level, this is because reformations do not lead to socio-economic development but are, instead, the product of it.

In addition, religious, social and political reforms are what you might call the software of development, and Tunisia has given itself a major upgrade in these areas. However, the software is useless without the appropriate hardware. What use is having the operating system for a supercomputer when you only possess a punch-card mainframe to run it on?

And the economic hardware requirements today are exponentially higher than they were when Europe had its Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Whereas back then, when Christendom was pirating the latest software from Islamic culture and competing to smash Islam’s monopoly on global trade, the hardware requirements, in terms of resources and infrastructure, were relatively modest, today that is no longer the case.

As a small illustration, the OECD group of industrialised states spent, in 2009, $874 billion on research and development. To put that in context, the gross domestic product of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was $336 billion in 2016, while Tunisia’s is a mere $42 billion, less than half Google’s annual revenue.

And that is just annual spending on R&D. That does not include the huge amounts the West and other advanced economies invest in education, not to mention the generations-long construction of legacy intellectual and technological capital.

Gaining Tunisia and the wider region, not to mention other poorer countries, access to the phenomenal levels of necessary resources will require both a pooling of regional wealth as well as radical policies to address global interstate inequalities. In the absence of enlightened mechanisms for wealth and knowledge sharing and redistribution, we are likely to see the burgeoning of regional and global conflicts that may make the current upheavals seem minor in comparison.

Of course, whether or not democratisation and enlightenment lead to prosperity, they are noble goals to pursue in their own right for the sake of freedom, fairness, justice, knowledge and human dignity. However, if they do not deliver on the economic bottomline, these advances are fragile and can quickly be shattered by popular discontent and populist authoritarian forces. If human enlightenment is to survive, let alone thrive, we need global solutions, not local illusions.

 

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Economic recovery means little to Europe’s working poor

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Europe is experiencing an economic recovery but many of the jobs being created are keeping people poor rather than lifting them out of poverty.

Friday 8 December 2017

The latest forecasts tell a story of economic recovery. Europe is emerging out of a decade-long slump that nearly crippled a handful of countries and stung employment and growth numbers in the rest. People are working again, industry is growing and business confidence is up, except perhaps in Brexit-paralysed Britain. This is surely good news for people living in poverty.

Or not. All this economic good cheer ignores a persistent and often under-reported problem in ‘wealthy’ Europe… having a job means squat if it is poorly paid, unregulated, unstable or just plain unfair. This was the general sentiment at a recent EU-backed meeting in Brussels organised by the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) which heard from a range of people experiencing poverty, especially the working poor.

The European Union’s unemployment rate is currently around 7.5%, which is the lowest rate recorded in the bloc since December 2008. But according to a new EU report on ‘In-work poverty in the EU’, the number of European workers at risk of poverty has actually increased, from 8% in 2007 to 10% today.

Europe knows it has a problem and that there is a window of opportunity in the early stages of the recovery to tackle it. Alluding to Bob Dylan, European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, who’s responsibilities include employment and social affairs, acknowledged this. “The times, they are a-changin,” she said, and everyone — governments, industry, social partners, unions — needs to ensure no-one gets “left behind or pushed aside” in this changing world.

Yet the stark reality is that Europe’s recovery is opening up an economic no-man’s land between the ownership class and the ‘working poor’. This is a precarious place — especially for the 70 million Europeans who lack the skills or basic numeracy to take full advantage of the digital revolution — where even Europe’s much-vaunted social system seems unable to gain ground. It’s occupied by a growing class of Europeans who are not poor enough for many of the social services and not rich enough to afford decent accommodation and good health, or to start a family, move away from home… or simply to enjoy the benefits of a ‘living wage’.

We live in a world of plenty but wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands,” said EAPN’s Director Leo Williams, which is an “absurd paradox”, he added, in light of the recent Paradise Papers tax-avoidance scandal.

Flexibility leads to poverty

And the causes of this wealth gap are entrenched in labour market principles which are geared towards flexibility and dynamism in order to stimulate growth, new jobs and mobility. But in practice, it engenders a power imbalance between workers and employers which translates into something called ‘low work intensity’. For others, it means low-paid or minimum-wage work, and for Europe’s legions of under-employed youths and graduates it means a succession of internships and other ‘non-standard’ or exotic working conditions crafted by employers to keep labour costs in check. This imbalance has direct consequences on the working poor, ranging from difficulties meeting childcare costs and poor or no housing, to high stress and failing health.

In this report, in-work poverty means household income is below the poverty line or threshold despite a full or part-time worker living there. The poverty threshold is defined as under 60% of the average household income (before housing costs).

Real-life struggles told by delegates invited from all over Europe to the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting were aimed at EU policy-makers and social actors. A single mother of four spoke of a life “treading water” and feeling socially excluded in the UK. “We really want justice, not judgement,” she said, and to be “cared for, not criticised” by society.

A delegate from Portugal said that even with two household incomes one full-time and one part-time her family struggled to make ends meet. Failing health and dwindling disposable income offered little hope for her children’s future. “I want work and stability… to be able to live not only survive,” she said.

Great stock has been put in the new European Pillar of Social Rights to guide the EU towards a more inclusive model of fair jobs and economic growth. Europe’s leaders recently gathered at a summit in Sweden to discuss a wide range of issues — education, training, lifelong learning, social protection, housing, fair wages, old-age pensions, in-work poverty, etc. — and to pledge support for the Pillar.

But for the quiet-spoken Croatian delegate back at the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting, who lamented the broken financial and political systems that can’t even prevent homelessness in ‘wealthy’ Europe, the imminent future looks less hopeful. He wondered how he would be able to afford to leave the shelter he calls home when his earnings are swallowed up by his poor health and the struggle for daily survival.

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Egypt’s dollar woes

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

100le

Monday 11 April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Invading Europe without invaders

 
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By Khaled Diab

Any objective observer can see  that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. So why are so many Europeans afraid of refugees?

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.  Photo: © Jure Eržen

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.
Photo: © Jure Eržen

Friday 9 October 2015

It has been wondrous to behold the massive outpouring of sympathy towards refugees in Europe. Every “refugees welcome” placard and act of solidarity has restored my faith a little in our human ability to do collective good. Those poignant acts of solidarity – from donations of meals and clothes to people offering their homes to those who have taken flight – which have shamed our leaders into action have been kindling to warm my heart during this winter of human misery.

But it strikes me that, as the mainstream has warmed to the refugees and their plight, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of fear and anxiety usually expressed by the defenceless towards ruthless conquerors.

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word. Yet, across Europe, conservatives have been singing, in chorus, the refrain “Islamic invasion”.

“They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and, stuck on a major transit route, has been building a wall to  keep the refugees out.

What is most remarkable is that Bishop Kiss-Rigo’s comments were a rebuke of his spiritual boss, Pope Francis I’s commendable appeal to European churches to take in refugees.

Much further west, similar calls to man the barricades could also be heard. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” said Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran.

When it comes to prosperity, the influx of refugees (equivalent to just 0.37% of the EU’s population since 2012) poses little to no threat, economists and other experts agree. An analysis by the Brookings Institute  reveals that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees.

If the European economy stands to benefit from the influx of refugees, why all the panic?

One reason is economic anxiety. Across Europe job insecurity has risen dramatically while youth unemployment in many countries is perilously high. In addition, the corrosion of the welfare state and severe austerity measures have left millions reeling in shock.

Rather than attribute Europe’s economic ills on the continent’s growing welfare state for the wealthy, the corporations exporting (or “outsourcing”) jobs for greater profit and financial sector mismanagement, far-right demagogues find it easier to blame the weak, and kick those who are already down. In addition, the periphery countries dealing with the brunt of the crisis are the poorest and least-equipped to do so.

Beyond economics, many Europeans are genuinely concerned about the potential danger to their security posed by refugees. While it seems far-fetched and even preposterous to people like me that those fleeing the combined terror of the Assad regime and ISIS will themselves turn to terrorism, many ordinary Europeans do not possess the luxury of that insight.

In addition, there is the slim chance that ISIS will play on these fears and send a handful of terrorists amid the flow of genuine refugees. In such an instance, all it need take is a single act of calculated terror to cause Fortress Europe to pull up the drawbridges it has recently slightly let down.

However, fears about security are subordinate to anxieties about culture and identity. Since World War II, Western Europe has witnessed a remarkable demographic transformation in which citizens from former colonies – and from Turkey, in the case of Germany – and their offspring now constitute a significant minority of the population.

Though many have related to this new multicultural reality as enriching and empowering, others have found it troublesome and threatening, particularly those who feel their culture is superior to those of the immigrants. When coupled with the corrosive effects of globalisation and rapid technological development, as well as the rapid demise of religion in many parts of Europe in recent decades, many feel adrift in an uncharted ocean.

Although fanatics capture the headlines and people’s imaginations, this death of religion has also been occurring among what Europe identifies as its Muslim minority, which was never defined so monolithically in the past. For example more than a fifth of “Muslims” in France don’t believe in Islam nor practise it.

One reason why anxiety towards Muslims carries an extra punch compared to other groups, such as Indians and Chinese, is the centuries-old mutual rivalry between neighbouring Islam and Christendom (nowadays referred to as the West).

Just as the crusades continue to cast a shadow over the Middle East, Islamic expansionism in the early centuries of Islam have left their mark on European identity, both negatively and positively.

This partly explains why an older Spanish gentleman told a friend of mine: “There is more than one way to re-conquer Spain.” This is despite the fact that it has been half a millennium since Spain completed its Reconquista and expelled the last Muslim king in Andalusia, Muhammad XII of Granada.

This Muslim menace is shrouded in the mists of time and subsequent might for the powerful former empires of western Europe, which partly explains why they have been able to absorb large Muslim populations. However, this is less the case in some parts of central and southeastern Europe, where the Ottomans dominated until relatively recently, and whose independence was won at a huge cost. But this should be something that unites them with the Syrians who, like many eastern and southern Europeans, were victims of the Ottoman empire too, especially once it shed its multicultural tolerance.

Remembered history, along with the resurgence of religiosity and its negligible Muslim minority, might help explain why Slovakia wished only to take in Christian Syrian refugees. After all, what is today Slovakia was a frontline in the constant wars between the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires, though Slovakia, except for a small sliver in the south, was never actually ruled by the Turks.

Populists and demagogues have been riding, and fanning, the wave of re-Christianisation and growing Islamophobia by playing the history card relentlessly. “When it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years,” said Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right “Viktator”, evoking memories of the Ottoman carve-up of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary which empowered the peasantry but destroyed the ruling class.

This is a far cry from the earlier pronouncements by Orban, who is an atheist who now regularly talks about “Christian values”, that “Turkey is not a state at the edge of Europe anymore.” What Orban’s swinging rhetorical pendulum underlines is that there is no “clash of civilisations”, just clashes of interests and convenience.

Moreover, any sensible observer should be able to see clearly that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. In our interconnected world, people need to conquer their fears and let sensibility and humanity reign.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 1 October 2015.

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