30 June 2012
Syria XIV (or whatever)
By Gwynne Dyer
Kofi Annan does the best he can. At least he’s back in harness, doing what he does best: trying to make peace where there is no hope of peace. The rest of them do the best they can, too, give or take the odd Russian. Well, not exactly the best they can, but at least they do enough to make it look like they’re trying. And you can’t really blame them for faking it, because they all know it that it can’t work.
On Saturday Kofi Annan, ex-United Nations Secretary-General and now special UN envoy for Syria, announced that a special “action group” meeting in Geneva had come up with a plan to stop the carnage in Syria. Or at least a faint hope. Or not, as the case may be.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council were there, plus some of the biggest regional players (but not Iran, which backs the Syrian regime, or Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels). They condemned “the continued escalating killing” and agreed that there must be a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” Then they all went outside and spat into the wind, just to show how determined they were.
I made up the last bit, but they might as well have done that. The final communique said that the transitional government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed victory, saying it clearly signalled to President Bashar al-Assad that he must step down. But it didn’t, actually.
An early draft of the communique said that “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transitional government” – Bashar al-Assad, in other words – should be excluded, but that wording was gone from the final document. So Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was delighted with the outcome, since “no foreign solution” was being imposed on Syria.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, the most coherent opposition group, said it would reject any plan that did not include the unconditional departure of Assad, his family, and his close associates. Assad himself told Iranian television that no amount of foreign pressure would make his government change its policy. And on Friday, the day before the Geneva meeting, an estimated 190 people were killed in Syria, most of them by the government.
Assad’s regime has now killed around as many people – 16,000, by last count – as his father did in suppressing the last revolt against the regime in 1982. He must take hope from the fact that his father, in the end, terrorised all opposition into silence, and ruled on until his death in 2000. Bashar might win, too – and besides, what choice has he, at this point, but to fight until the last ditch?
So many people have already been slaughtered by Assad’s troops and their Alawite militia allies that there is no forgiveness left among the opposition. There is so little trust that a negotiated handover of power could not succeed even if Assad wanted that. His only remaining options are victory, exile or death.
It bears repeating that this is not how the Arab Spring ended up. It’s just how Syria has ended up, after eight months of non-violent demonstrations in the face of extreme regime violence gave way to armed resistance. The other Arab revolutions have not been drowned in blood (with the exception of Bahrain), and some of them, like Tunisia’s and Egypt’s, have already wrought huge changes. There’s even another one starting up in Sudan right now.
Two things make Syria different. One is its extreme religious and ethnic complexity, which makes it hard for protesters to maintain a united front against a regime that is adept at playing on inter-group fears and resentments. The other is that Assad heads the Syrian Baath Party, an utterly ruthless machine for seizing and holding power that copied much of its organisation and discipline from the Communists.
Why, then, would we expect it to behave any better than its former twin, the Iraqi Baath Party that was led by Saddam Hussein? Even the party’s role as the political vehicle for a religious minority was the same: Alawites in Syria, Sunni Muslims in Iraq. So if you were wondering how Saddam Hussein would have responded to the Arab Spring, now you know: just like Bashar al-Assad is responding.
(At this point in the argument, the American neo-cons will be getting ready to claim that the US invasion of Iraq was a blessing for Iraq after all. Not so fast, boys. Iraq is still not a very democratic place, and at least ten times as many Iraqis as Syrians have already been killed in the process.)
How long will the killing in Syria last? Until the rebels win, or until they are crushed. Are they going to win? Nobody knows. Will the neighbouring countries get dragged into the fighting? Probably not, although Lebanon is seriously at risk. Can Kofi Annan, the United Nations or the great powers do anything about this? Not a thing.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 12. (“I made…actually”; “So many…Damascus”; and “At this…process”)
27 June 2012
By Gwynne Dyer
There’s no point in talking about who’s going to win the Mexican presidential election on 1 July. Enrique Pena Nieto is going to win it. What’s more interesting is why he’s going to win it.
Pena Nieto, the candidate of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is a charming and extremely good-looking non-entity. He speaks no foreign language, has travelled little abroad, and is so ignorant that, when asked on live television what three books had influenced him most, he struggled to name any books at all. Finally, he came up with two: the Bible, and a Jeffrey Archer pot-boiler.
He has spent his entire life in politics, and his timing was good. In 1990 he began working in various local branches of the PRI, the ruling single party that dominated every aspect of Mexican life, and if democracy had not come to Mexico it would probably have taken him a long time to rise to the top. However, twelve years ago, when he was only 34, the PRI lost power after 70 years in office.
The “dinosaurs” who ran the party machine realised that they needed a new approach in the newly democratic environment, and fresh young faces like Pena Nieto’s were just what they needed out front. In PRI’s long march back to acceptability he was one of the standard-bearers, winning the governorship of the State of Mexico (the region surrounding the capital) in 2005.
The standard he bore did not have any stirring political slogan on it, however. Pena Nieto’s entire political pitch, then and subsequently, consisted of promising “projects” – a new road here, a hospital there – to every identifiable group in the electorate. That was all any PRI candidate could do, really, because the party had no serious ideological pretensions.
Sandwiched between explicitly ideological rivals to the right and left, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the socialist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), all the old-fashioned PRI had to offer was patronage and the pork barrel: poverty politics. That should have condemned it to a long exile from power, because Mexico has been doing very well economically under the PAN governments that have run the country since 2000.
Mexico is the rising star among Latin American economies, with an annual growth rate that now exceeds that of Brazil. And in an economy with low inflation and manageable debt, real incomes have risen as well.
Per capita income in Mexico is now as much as 50 percent higher than Brazil’s. So if Brazilian voters were so happy with the results of President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s eight years in power that they gratefully elected his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, to the presidency in 2010, why have PAN’s twelve years of economic success not entitled it to re-election too?
The answer is simple: President Felipe Calderon’s declaration of war on Mexico’s drug cartels in 2006 has embroiled the country in a bloodbath that blinds both foreigners and its own citizens to the remarkable progress that is being made on most other fronts. At least 50,000 killed in the drug war over the past five years have persuaded Mexican citizens that the country is in an acute crisis.
In fact, Mexico has a lower murder rate than Brazil or Colombia, and less than a third of Venezuela’s. However, the spectacular (and deliberate) savagery of the killings by the Mexican drug cartels has persuaded many Mexicans that they face an acute threat to their personal security, and they are not the least bit grateful to Felipe Calderon for unleashing this horror on the country.
Back in the bad old days when the PRI ran everything, the cartels waged their internal wars discreetly, and they never attacked the forces of the state. There was an unwritten understanding that the government would not hinder their activities so long as they kept a low profile, except for an occasional big drug bust to keep the Americans happy.
In return, the cartels paid off PRI officials at every level and helped to perpetuate the party’s hold on power. It was a grubby arrangement, but not many people got killed and the public slept easily. Then came PAN, Calderon, and the war. A significant section of the public, rightly or wrongly, now believes that the PRI can make the deals that are needed to restore the peace.
It’s probably a bit more complicated than that, in reality. Pena Nieto says nothing about it in public, but he has hired Oscar Naranjo, the Colombian police chief who played a major role in “decommissioning” that country’s cocaine syndicates, as his main security adviser. The impression that conveys to the voters (quite intentionally) is that as president he will make peace with the cartels, not wage a hopeless war against them.
Did Pena Nieto think this up by himself? Probably not. Are the “dinosaurs” who still control the PRI behind the scenes capable of coming up with it? Of course they are; they once did business with the ancestors of the current drug lords.
And would this be such a terrible thing for Mexico? Well, so long as the United States will not permit the legalisation and nationalisation of the drug trade, it’s probably Mexico’s best remaining alternative.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“In fact…country”; and “It’s probably…them”)
24 June 2012
Rio+20: Vengeance Too Long Delayed
By Gwynne Dyer
There was no law against genocide in the early 1940s; it only became an internationally recognised crime after the worst genocide of modern history had actually happened. Similarly, there is no law against “ecocide” now. That will only come to pass when the damage to the environment has become so extreme that large numbers of people are dying from it even in rich and powerful countries.
They are already dying from the effects of environmental destruction in some poor countries, but that makes no difference because they are powerless. By the time it starts to hurt large numbers of people in powerful countries, twenty or thirty years from now, most of the politicians who conspired to smother any substantial progress at the Rio+20 Earth Summit will be safely beyond the reach of any law. But eventually there will be a law.
Rio+20, which ended last Friday, was advertised as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to build on the achievements of the original Earth Summit, held in the same city twenty years ago. That extraordinary event produced a legally binding treaty on biodiversity, an agreement on combating climate change that led to the Kyoto accord, the first initiative for protecting the world’s remaining forests, and much more besides.
This time, few leaders of the major powers even bothered to attend. They would have come only to sign a summit statement, “The Future We Want”, that had already been nibbled to death by special interests, national and corporate. “(The) final document… contributes almost nothing to our struggle to survive as a species,” said Nicaraguan representative Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann. “We now face a future of increasing natural disasters.”
A plan to stop the destruction of the world’s oceans was blocked by the US, Canada and Russia. The final text simply says that countries should do more to prevent over-fishing and ocean acidification, without specifying what. A call to end subsidies for fossil fuels was removed from the final text, as was language emphasising the reproductive rights of women. And of course there were no new commitments on fighting climate change.
The 49-page final declaration of Rio+20 contained the verb “reaffirm” 59 times. In effect, some 50,000 people from 192 countries traveled to Rio de Janeiro to “reaffirm” what was agreed there twenty years ago. The fact that the document was not even less ambitious than the 1992 final text was trumpeted as a success.
Rarely has such a large elephant laboured so long to give birth to such a small mouse. The declared goal of the conference, which was to reconcile economic development and environmental protection by giving priority to the goal of a “green” (i.e. sustainable) economy, simply vanished in a cloud of vague generalities.
The final text does say that “fundamental changes in the way societies consume and produce are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development,” but it does NOT say what those fundamental changes should be. A “green economy” becomes only one of many possible ways forward. You wonder why they even bothered.
“This is an outcome that makes nobody happy. My job was to make everyone equally unhappy,” said Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of the conference, but that is not strictly true. Governments seeking to avoid commitments are happier than activists who wanted some positive results from the conference, and the hundreds of large corporations that were represented at Rio are happiest of all.
How did it end up like this? Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 48 percent in the past 20 years, we have lost another 3 million square kilometres (1.15 million sq. mi.) of forest, , and the world’s population has grown by 1.6 billion – yet there is less sense of urgency than there was in 1992. You can’t just blame the economy: Rio+20 would probably have ended just as badly if there had been no financial crash in 2008.
Twenty years ago the issues of climate change, biodiversity, preservation of oceans and forests, and sustainable development were relatively fresh challenges. Moreover, the world had just emerged from a long Cold War, and there was plenty of energy and hope around. Now everybody understands how tough the challenges are, and how far apart are the interests of the rich and the poor countries.
We now have a 20-year history of defeats on this agenda, and there is a lot of defeatism around. Politicians are always reluctant to be linked to lost causes, and the struggles against poverty and environmental destruction now seem to fall into that category. Thus we sleepwalk towards terrible disasters – but that doesn’t absolve our leaders of responsibility. We didn’t hire them to follow; we hired them to lead.
At the recent World Congress on Justice, Law and Governance for Environmental Sustainability, one of the events leading up to the Rio+20 conference, a group of “radical” lawyers proposed that “ecocide” should be made a crime. They were only radical in the sense that a group of lawyers agitating for a law against genocide would have been seen as radical in 1935.
One day, after many great tragedies have occurred, there will be a law against ecocide. But almost all the real culprits will be gone by then.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“The 49-page…success”; and “This is…of all”) To shorten further to 700 words, omit also paragraph 8 (“The final…bothered”)
20 June 2012
Egypt: End Game
By Gwynne Dyer
“If we find that Scaf (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) stands firm against us as we try to fulfill the fulfill the demands of the revolution,” said Fatema AbouZeid of the Muslim Brotherhood as the final results of Egypt’s presidential election last weekend rolled in, “we will go back to the streets and escalate things peacefully to the highest possible level.”
“Now we have a new factor in Egyptian politics, the Egyptian people themselves…” she continued. “(They) will not accept a return to the old regime in any form, not after so much Egyptian blood was shed to remove it.” Well, maybe.
There’s nothing like an election to make things clear. Now all the cards are on the table in Egypt, and the last round of bidding has begun. The army has opened with a very high bid in the hope of scaring everybody else off, and now the other players have to decide whether to call or fold.
Sometimes, even in long-established democratic states, the players simply fold in order to avoid a destructive constitutional upheaval. That’s what the Democratic Party did when the United States Supreme Court awarded the state of Florida and the presidency to George W. Bush in the disputed election of 2000.
It was an outrageously partisan decision by the 5-4 Republican majority in the Supreme Court, but if the Democrats had rejected it the United States would have faced months or even years of political turmoil. If they had foreseen the devastation that the Bush presidency would cause they might have done otherwise, but at the time their decision seemed wise.
It is possible that the Egyptian “opposition” – a uneasy amalgam of the secular and leftist young who overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak on Tahrir Square sixteen months ago and the Muslim Brotherhood (which initially avoided direct confrontation with the old regime) – will also just fold. After sixteen months of upheaval so many ordinary Egyptians just want “stability” that the army might win a showdown in the streets.
The problem is that the Egyptian army has bid much higher than the US Supreme Court ever did – so high that if the other players fold they lose almost everything. This is a brazen bid to revive the old regime minus Mubarak, and restore the armed forces to the position of economic privilege and political control that they have enjoyed, to Egypt’s very great cost, ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952.
On 14 June, just 48 hours before the polls opened for the second round of the presidential election, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court announced that last year’s parliamentary election, in which Islamic parties won almost three-quarters of the seats, was conducted by rules that contravened the constitution.
There was a legitimate question about whether the political parties should have been allowed to run candidates in the seats reserved for independents. No, said the court, all of whose judges were appointed by the old regime. But rather than just ruling that there must be by-elections in those seats, they declared that the whole parliament must be dissolved.
This bizarre decision presumably meant that the 100-person constituent assembly created by the parliament to write Egypt’s new constitution was also dissolved. The army still swears that it will hand power over to the new democratically elected president on 30 June – but he will now take office with no parliament and no constitution to define his powers.
Might there have been some collusion between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Supreme Constitutional Court in this matter? Is the Pope a Catholic?
Last Sunday, only three days after the Court handed down its judgement and just as it was becoming clear that the old regime’s candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, would probably lose the presidential election, the Scaf issued an “interim constitutional declaration”. It effectively gives the military legislative powers, control over the budget, and the right to pick the committee that writes the new constitution.
Since that committee will not report until the end of the year, in the meantime there will be no election for a new parliament. There will be an elected president, but he will not even have authority over the armed forces: the army’s “interim constitution” strips him of that power, and no doubt its tame committee will write it into the new permanent constitution as well.
The Scaf can’t have come up with all this in just 72 hours after the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court on the 14th. There had to be a lot of coordination between the military and the Court beforehand. You could call this a “constitutional coup,” but the more accurate phrase is “military coup.” So what can Egyptians do about it?
They can go back to Tahrir Square, this time student radicals and Muslim Brothers together, and try to force the army out of politics. That will be very dangerous, because this time, unlike February of last year, the generals may actually order the soldiers to clear the square by gunfire. Or the opposition, aware that the mass of the population has no appetite for more confrontation and instability, may just submit and hope for a better day.
If it does that, the Egyptian revolution is dead.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 10. (“Now…maybe”; “It was…wise”; and