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Archive for June, 2019

Al-Matrafi’s Tweet

Killing journalists is no big deal. “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do,” said Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, the one international leader that he never criticises or condemns. They were joking together at the G20 summit meeting in Japan on Friday, and Putin replied: “We also have. It’s the same.”

No it isn’t. Twenty-six Russian journalists have been murdered since Putin became president, and the Russian media have become very cautious about what they say. No journalists have been killed for political reasons in the United States on Trump’s watch, and the American media can still do their jobs. Some of them do, and some don’t, but there’s nothing new about that.

What is relatively new is that it’s getting seriously unhealthy for journalists in the Middle East to criticise the United States or its local allies. The highest-profile case of recent date was the slaughter of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul by an Saudi government death squad. (‘Slaughter’ is the right word: they cut him up after they killed him.)

Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post, so his murder attracted a lot of attention, but the group facing the biggest threat are the journalists who work for the Al Jazeera Media Network. It’s the best news network in the Arab world (with a full English-language service as well), and it’s worried that Saudi Arabia is going to bomb its headquarters in Qatar.

In fact, the Al Jazeera management have been taking out full-page paid ads in leading world newspapers (e.g. New York Times 23 June, The Guardian 29 June) pointing out that they now face a “credible death threat” from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, they’re right.

It began with a tweet in mid-June from high-ranking Saudi journalist Khaled al-Matrafi claiming that Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar was “a legitimate and logical target” for the Saudi-led, US-backed coalition that has been bombing the living daylights out of Yemen for the past four years.

Al-Matrafi is not just some loose cannon. He is the former director of the Al Arabiya news channel, originally founded by relatives of the Saudi royal family to counter criticism coming from Al Jazeera. He is also known to be close to the kingdom’s decision-makers (including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who probably gave the orders to murder and dismember Jamal Khashoggi).

Twitter took down al-Matrafi’s tweet after a day, but Al Arabiya is often used to convey official Saudi threats. When Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies imposed a blockade on the small Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar in 2017 (partly to force it to close down Al Jazeera), Al Arabiya’s general manager at the time, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, warned that if Qatar did not submit Al Jazeera staff (94 nationalities) would be massacred when the invasion came.

The invasion did not happen, probably due to American intervention, so Qatar is still independent and Al Jazeera is still in business. But Washington was trying to avoid embarrassment, not to save Al Jazeera. In fact, it generally sees the network as an enemy.

Back in 2001, when George Bush was planning the invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, urged him to bomb Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul and gave him its coordinates. By an amazing coincidence, the United States did bomb the Al Jazeera office in Kabul a couple of weeks later.

By an even more amazing coincidence, exactly the same sequence of events led to the destruction of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US was given the office’s co-ordinates (by Al Jazeera itself this time), and US forces proceeded to destroy the office – killing three journalists on that occasion.

So it’s understandable that the network’s journalists take a Saudi threat to attack them seriously, especially when it looks like the United States and Saudi Arabia are both thinking about going to war with Iran. Or rather, Saudi Arabia is pushing for AMERICA to go to war with Iran, while the Saudis (and the Israelis) cheer from the sidelines.

Qatar, a small peninsula sticking out into the Gulf from the Arabian coast, is directly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It might not get invaded by Saudi Arabia in that hypothetical war, but would either the US or Saudi Arabia take out Al Jazeera’s headquarters if a war gave them the excuse? Of course they would.

Would Saudi Arabia do it even before that war starts, using the Yemen war as a pretext, as Khaled al-Matrafi suggested this month? Less likely, but not unthinkable. There’s not a great deal left that’s unthinkable in today’s Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Back…occasion”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Not Just a Late Monsoon

The monsoon rains are finally arriving in central and northern India, but they are two weeks late. It started raining in Mumbai on Monday, and it should be raining in Delhi by Friday, but it will have come too late for many people, especially farmers. For some parts of the country, it has been 200 days without rain.

Late May and early June are always brutal in northern India, as the heat builds up and
the humidity rises. This year, with the monsoon so delayed, it has been particularly bad, with the temperature hitting 48°C in Delhi last week – the hottest June day on record – and 50°C in Rajasthan. And countrywide rainfall for this year is down 37%.

The heat and drought don’t just cause discomfort. After a few years of late or poor monsoons the level of the groundwater drops and wells run dry. This year hundreds, perhaps thousands of villages have been temporarily abandoned as the residents moved to towns where there was still water, and in the state of Maharashtra alone 6,000 tanker-trucks were delivering water to other hard-hit villages.

The Indian government has just created a new Ministry of Water Power to tackle water conservation and management (better late than never), but it can’t solve the problem. Food production is falling, people are dying, and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse.

It’s impossible to say how many people have died because of this year’s late monsoon, because India generally only counts people who make it to hospital before they die (and not always even then.) But the single state of Bihar reported 184 deaths by the middle of last week.

A more plausible measure of mortality comes from Europe, where they compare overall mortality in normal times with mortality during a heatwave, and (quite reasonably) assume that the difference is mostly due to the heat deaths. In the record 2003 heatwave in Europe, when temperatures were slightly lower that they have been in northern India this month, an estimated 35,000-70,000 people died.

So how many premature deaths from heat were there really in India this month? Probably tens of thousands. And how much food production will be lost this year? Again, you cannot calculate it directly, but I can give you an informed guess.

About a dozen years ago I was interviewing Dr Jyoti Parikh, the director of IRADe, a well-known think-tank in New Delhi. Out of the blue, she mentioned that her organisation had got the World Bank contract to forecast how much agricultural production India would lose when average global temperature reached +2°C above the pre-industrial average.

The contract was confidential at the time, but the World Bank’s chief economist had given these contracts to private think-tanks in every major country, probably on the assumption that official predictions were being kept secret in most countries so as not to frighten the children. Or should I say the citizens?

In the end, the predictions commissioned by the World Bank also remained unpublished. Indeed, they are secret even down to the present (because, after all, it is governments that pay for the World Bank.) But Dr Parikh told me the prediction for India. At +2°C, India would lose 25% of its food production. We are now at about +1.3° worldwide, so shall we say 10% of food production lost now in a bad year?

Weather does fluctuate from year to year, of course, but worldwide the last four years have been the four warmest since 1880, when global records become available. Since 2004, India has experienced 11 of its 15 warmest recorded years. The frequency and duration of heat waves in India has increased and is predicted to continue increasing. Global heating isn’t coming. It’s here.

It’s not just India, of course. The British Meteorological Office says there is a 10% chance that the average global temperature will exceed +1.5°C at least once in the next five years. (That’s the Paris climate change agreement’s ‘never-exceed’ target.) At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to take a major miracle to avoid hitting +2°C within fifteen years.

At that level significant numbers of people will be dying of the heat every year, and much bigger numbers will be starving as food production fails, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. But don’t feel left out if you live in the more temperate parts of the planet.

The wildfires have already started again in Canada and California, with predictions that they may be even worse than last year. And Europe is getting ready for a heat wave, starting around Friday, that will bring temperatures above 40° to much of the continent. Nobody gets off free.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“The heat…villages”; and “Weather…here”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Ethiopia: Abiy the Lucky

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a very lucky man. He has survived three attempts to kill or overthrow him in the past year.

Last June he escaped unhurt in a grenade attack that killed one and wounded scores at a political rally. In October his office in the capital, Addis Ababa, was surrounded by angry soldiers who threatened to kill him over low pay, but he talked them down. And last Saturday he emerged unscathed from an attempted military coup.

It was a very serious attempt. In the capital, General Se’are Mekonnen was shot dead by his own bodyguard, as was another general who was visiting his home. Abiy had made Se’are the chief of staff of the Ethiopian army, a controversial appointment, only a year ago.

At the same time another of Abiy’s appointees, Ambachew Mekonnen, the governor of the key Amhara region, was murdered together with his top adviser in the region’s capital, Bahir Dar. It was clearly a quite broad plot, but its coordination must have been off. Police are still rounding up suspected plotters, and Abiy Ahmed was still prime minister on Monday.

That is a very good thing, because Abiy Ahmed is Ethiopia’s best chance of breaking the cycle of tyrannies that has blighted its modern history. It is Africa’s second-biggest country (102 million people) and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but its politics has been cursed.

In the past century it has gone from a medieval monarchy to rule by foreign fascists (it was conquered by Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s), and then back to an only slightly less medieval tyranny for another thirty years – until a Marxist-led military coup in 1974.

The ‘Derg’ junta murdered the emperor and half a million other Ethiopians – mostly the better educated ones – in a ‘Red Terror’ that fell short of the Khmer Rouge’s ‘killing fields’, but not by much. Then, after almost two decades, the Soviet Union collapsed, the foreign aid to the Communists stopped, and the Reds were overthrown in their turn in 1991.

The victor that time was a coalition of ethnic rebel groups, militarised and brutalised by a long guerilla war against the Derg, who slid quickly into the seats of power and remained there comfortably until last year. The political killings declined, but the tyranny they protected did not – until suddenly, last year, they handed the whole mess over to Abiy Ahmed.

They did so because the mess was getting out of hand. Ethiopia is a very complicated country: four major ethnic groups, all of which have fought each other in the course of the country’s long history, and a litter of smaller ethnic groups as well. The country is also divided between a Christian majority and a big Muslim minority.

To make matters worse, one of the larger ethnic groups, the Tigrayans, dominated themilitary and intelligence services, and therefore the regime as a whole – and there was no shred of democracy anywhere in the system. There were pro forma elections, but in the last ones, in 2015, not a single opposition candidate won a seat in parliament.

The longer the Tigrayans dominated at the centre, the more unpopular the federal government became, and meanwhile the country’s relentless population growth intensified the land disputes between rival ethnic groups. Since 2015 some 3 million Ethiopians have become internal refugees, mainly due to struggles over land.

So in April 2018, in desperation, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front handed the prime ministership over to Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy is certainly a ‘child of the Party’, which he joined at 15, but he is a reformer who can be all things to all people. His father was Muslim, his mother was Christian. As an Oromo, he comes from the lowest rungs of the Ethiopian ethnic pecking order. (No Oromo has ever held such high office before.) He is fluent in Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Tigrinya and English. And he is a very modern man.

He knew he had to move fast, so he immediately ended the state of emergency and changed almost all the senior military commanders. He appointed a cabinet that was half-female, plus women as president and as head of the Supreme Court.

He released thousands of political prisoners. He freed the media, made the leader of an opposition party head of the Electoral Board, and put her in charge of organising free elections in 2020.

He made peace and re-opened the border with Eritrea after 20 years of hot and cold war. He has done pretty well everything he could think of, and he did it in little over a year. And yet he is still in a very precarious position
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It could not be otherwise. He is trying to free a big, complex, traumatised country from a century of dreadful history, and the odds, of course, are against him. But he’s not down yet.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“To make…Ahmed”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Morsi: A Death Foretold

Egypt’s first and last democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, died on Monday, lying on the floor of the courtroom where they were trying him on yet more charges. (He was already serving several life sentences.) It was probably a heart attack, but according to witnesses they left him lying there for twenty minutes before medical help arrived.

He was only 67, but he was not in good health: he had both diabetes and liver disease. But he was not getting proper treatment for those illnesses: a British parliamentary group that investigated his situation at his family’s request last year concluded that without urgent medical assistance the damage to his health could be “permanent and possibly terminal.” Well, it was.

Morsi was held in solitary confinement for six years, and saw his family just three times. His living conditions were such that the United Nations Human rights office has called for a “prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into his death. Fair enough, but he is only one of thousands of Egyptians who have been murdered or tortured by the military regime that overthrew him in 2013.

Morsi was not a very good president: he was a narrow, stubborn man who governed solely in the interests of his own Muslim Brotherhood party and its Islamic priorities. He behaved like this even though he had barely scraped into the presidency with the votes of many who, though secular in their views and values, feared that otherwise the candidate of the old regime would win.

They fully shared his desire to uproot the secular ‘deep state’ that had ruled Egypt through three military dictators and six decades, but they had not signed up for an Islamist constitution instead. So they started demonstrating against Morsi, and only a year after he was elected they cheered when the military stepped in and overthrew him, like so many turkeys voting for Christmas.

Morsi and his party behaved badly, the secular pro-democracy activists were no wiser, and they have both paid a high price in blood and misery for their mistakes. So is there any particular reason to highlight the fact and manner of Morsi’s passing?

Yes, because it creates an opportunity to consider what might have happened if he had not been overthrown.

He would probably still be alive, because he would have been getting good medical care, but he would no longer be in power. His four-year presidential term would have expired in 2016, and he would not have won a second term.

Whoever won the first election after long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 was winning a poisoned chalice, for the Egyptian economy was already on the rocks when the protests began. In fact, that’s why they started, and the long period of protesting and politicking that followed meant that nobody even started thinking about the economy again until early 2013.

The whole of Morsi’s first presidential term, had he served it out, would have been spent struggling to pull the economy out of the ditch. In the course of that, he would have had to impose all sorts of austerity measures that would have hurt exactly the people who were his core voters: the pious poor. And half of them wouldn’t have voted for him next time.

The whole tragedy of 2013, which ended up with General al-Sisi’s snipers killing more than a thousand unarmed protesters in Rabaa and Nahda Squares in Cairo and wounding at least 4,000 others – a massacre perhaps as bad as Tienanmen Square – was completely unnecessary. People more experienced with democracy would have known that Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule would both be rejected in the 2016 elections.

All they had to do was wait it out, and let the voters sort it out next time. That’s what Americans who deplore Donald Trump are doing right now, but they have more than two centuries of democratic government under their belt.

The voters may choose to make the same ‘mistake’ again, of course, being only human, but mostly they don’t. And even if they do, there will be another chance to fix things the next time around. As long as the decisions are not completely irrevocable, they can eventually be reversed – and you get to keep your democracy.

If Morsi had not been overthrown, the biggest Arab country, with one-third of the world’s Arabic-speaking people, would still be a democracy. Other Arab countries like Algeria and Sudan, where they are trying to make democracy happen today, would have a powerful supporter in Egypt, not a sworn enemy.

Syria would probably still have suffered a civil war, and so might Yemen, but the ultra-conservative monarchies of the Gulf would no longer dominate the Arab world with their money. Nobody can question the courage of the young men and women who overthrew the Egyptian dictatorship in 2011, but they were too ready to dispense with democracy at the first sign of trouble.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Morsi…2013″; and “Whoever…2013″)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.