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Sudan: No Surprise

It’s like Tienanmen Square in miniature, and maybe not all that miniature. The official death toll in Khartoum after Monday’s massacre stands at 35, but the whole city is still locked down, with columns of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) vehicles driving through the streets firing at practically anything that moves. There may be a lot more dead.

The RSF used to be known as the Janjaweed, and they are not soldiers; they are professional killers. They are the local solution to the problem any dictatorship faces when it decides to end a non-violent protest by murdering the protesters. By that time your soldiers will usually have been on the streets for a while, and will have had personal contact with the people you want to kill.

The ordinary soldiers come from exactly the same society as the protesters and, knowing who these people really are, will by now be quite reluctant to kill them. Dictators know that you must never give your soldiers an order you know they will disobey, because that creates a dilemma for them that they can only resolve by killing you. So you must find some other group to do the massacre.

They may just be soldiers you bring in from out of town, who have had no previous human contact with the protesters before the order to kill is given. That’s what the Chinese regime did before the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989.

They may be special forces troops and secret police, left over from the old dictatorship and long rewarded for abusing and murdering the old regime’s enemies, who will gladly serve a new dictatorship. That’s who General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi used to kill at least a thousand non-violent protesters on Rabaa Square in Cairo after his military coup overthrew Egypt’s elected government in 2013.

In Sudan that group began as a bunch of camel-herding tribesmen, already at war with the local farmers, who were then recruited by the old regime to torch villages and slaughter their inhabitants in western Sudan. They acquired a taste for rape, pillage and murder and became known as the Janjaweed. They are now called the RSF.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator since 1989, originally created them to carry out a genocide in the separatist western province of Darfur, a crime for which he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. They were never seen in the capital in those days, but now they have uniforms of a sort and they are all over Khartoum.

They are doing the job that the soldiers of the regular army might have balked at: killing enough citizens, more or less at random, to frighten the rest back into submission. The ordinary soldiers’ reluctance was often on display in the early days of the Sudanese revolution, when they sometimes intervened to protect the protesters from the RSF.

The generals who have now unleashed the RSF never felt that reluctance themselves. Unlike the private soldiers, they have profited greatly under Bashir’s rule and have no intention of giving up their own privileges and power. They were happy enough to sacrifice Bashir to the protesters (he’s now under arrest and awaiting trial), but they don’t do self-sacrifice.

So they played for time, negotiating a ‘democratic transition’ with the protest leaders while waiting for the support to flow in from other Arab tyrannies. It duly arrived: an immediate gift of $3 billion from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to help Bashir’s military heirs buy back support, and the promise of political support for any killing that they saw as a necessary part of the process.

The military junta, calling itself the ‘Transitional Military Council’, kept up the facade of power-sharing with the opposition ‘Alliance for Freedom and Change’ right down to last weekend. On Sunday the TMC spokesman said that a deal was almost done: there would be an election in two years, and civilians would have a majority of the seats on the interim council.

Then on Monday morning the Rapid Support Forces/Janjaweed went in shooting and cleared the square in front of Army Headquarters that had been occupied by pro-democracy forces for the past two months. The TMC’s head, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, declared on state television that the military had decided to “stop negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change and cancel what had been agreed on.”

What had changed? Nothing. The military were never negotiating in good faith; they were just buying time. The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), whic spearheaded the nationwide protests, is calling for a campaign of “sweeping civil disobedience to topple the treacherous and killer military council,” but unless it can take back control of the streets, it’s all over.

Can it do that? Probably not. The Janjaweed don’t care how many people they kill, and none of the most powerful governments in the Arab world do either.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They may…2013″)

The People’s Republic of Amnesia

Another of the five-yearly anniversaries has rolled around, and it’s time to write another think-piece about the long-term meaning of the massacre on Beijing’s Tienanmen Square on 4 June 1989. But 30 years later, what is there left to say?

Great changes were already underway in the Communist-ruled parts of Europe in 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, visited Beijing after the students had taken over the square in late April, and he obviously thought that the same process was underway in China. Maybe it was, but it was violently aborted – and it has still not recovered.

That’s not what people thought at the time. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of students
were killed on the square – the soldiers burned the bodies in a massive pyre right on the square, so there was never an accurate count. Hundreds or thousands more died elsewhere, because similar demonstrations were put down in every major Chinese city. And we all thought: this will never be forgotten.

The students weren’t counter-revolutionaries. Their hero, the man whose death they were honouring when they occupied the square, was Hu Yaobang, a lifelong Communist, a veteran of the Long March, who simply believed that it was high time to ease up on the controls four decades after the Communists took power in China.

For that Hu, then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, had been forced into retirement by the Party’s hard-liners in 1987. But everybody knew what he wanted, and when he died two years later the students came out to demand it again: government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free trade unions.

The dominant conservative faction in the Chinese Communist Party responded by killing them, and then set out to erase all popular memory of what had happened. It can’t be done, said all the journalists outside China: they will never be forgiven. The crowds will be back on the streets one of these days, and there will be a great reckoning and radical change.

Well, not. Thirty years later, most Chinese millennials are ignorant of exactly what happened in 1989. The older generation remember, but they dare not mention it in public and they are a dwindling minority. Journalist Louisa Lim has accurately described contemporary China as the ‘People’s Republic of Amnesia’.

Why did this happen, and has the notion of a freer future really gone down the memory hole in China? Start with the fact that the Soviet Union was 72 years old in 1989, whereas the Chinese People’s Republic was only 40.

That extra generation meant that there was nobody still in power in Russia who had actually ordered the deaths of thousands of people. Not only the revolutionary generation but also the Stalinist generation were gone, and by the 1980s the career Communists who had climbed the greasy pole of power were mere bureaucrats.

They thought they were hard men too, but in fact they weren’t anything of the sort. A few of them tried to carry out a coup and restore Communist rule in 1991, but they were actually trembling with fear as they spoke on TV, and they were seen off in a couple of days. Whereas China’s rulers in 1989 still had lots of hands-on experience with killing people.

Some of them, like Hu Yaobang and his successor Zhao Ziyang, were genuine idealists who felt that the Party’s controls must be loosened now that the revolution was an accomplished fact. Zhao actually went to the square at dawn on 19 May and addressed the students, urging them to hold fast to their demands.

“We are already old, we do not matter anymore,” he told them – but Zhao already knew that he had lost the argument, and that the Communist Party leadership had decided to clear the square by force. He had also been stripped of his own position, and would live the last 15 years of his life under house-arrest.

The actual massacre was delayed for a further two weeks because the soldiers in Beijing had been fraternising with the students and could no longer be trusted to kill them. It took two weeks to replace them with fresh troops who knew nothing about what was happening in Beijing and would obediently kill the ‘counter-revolutionaries.’

So Communist dictatorship survived in China while it peacefully expired in Russia. It still looks solid today: the current leader, Xi Jinping, has just effectively declared himself president-for-life. But Communist rule in China has now reached the magic age of 70. Is it immortal? Probably not.

Communist rule in the Soviet Union would probably have survived if the economy had been growing strongly. What brought it down was the insolence of absolute power combined with an abject failure to deliver the goods economically. The Chinese Communist regime is very insolent, but it will probably survive as long as it delivers the goods .

However, China has a market economy now, and market economies have recessions. The official Chinese growth rate is still 6%, but the real rate of growth has already fallen to somewhere between 3% and zero. The next five or ten years should be quite interesting.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“Some…counter-revolutionaries”)

The Mad Dog of the Middle East

The ‘mad dog of the Middle East’, as Ronald Reagan once called Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is on the brink of achieving his life’s ambition: becoming the dictator of Libya. He’s a rather old mad dog by now (75), but after a two-month siege his troops are starting to break through the defences of the country’s capital, Tripoli.

As a young officer, Haftar took part in the coup that overthrew the Libyan king and brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, and he stayed loyal to the new dictator for two decades. But he was captured during Libya’s lost war with Chad in 1987, and bought his freedom by switching sides and going to work for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

When Haftar’s efforts to overthrow Gaddafi on behalf of the CIA failed, it resettled him in the United States in 1990. He spent the next twenty years quietly in Virginia, acquiring American citizenship along the way – but then came the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11, and suddenly he was back in play.

He had little part in overthrowing Gaddafi, which was mainly achieved by NATO bombers. But the multifarious Libyan militias, which were mainly colourful extras playing supporting roles during the bombing campaign, took centre stage when Gaddafi was finally killed, because NATO couldn’t or wouldn’t take responsibility for putting Libya back together after the war.

Haftar’s opportunity came in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica), where Islamist militias had seized control of the regional capital, Benghazi, and murdered the US ambassador in 2012. He created a militia, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), that set about the lengthy task of reconquering Cyrenaica. The centre of Benghazi was destroyed by artillery fire in the process, but by 2017 the job was done.

Who paid for all this? Haftar’s financial arrangements are murky, to say the least, but his backers would certainly include France, which has a large investment in Libyan oil. Also Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, all of which like dictators and hate Islamist radicals. And, since early 2017, the United States as well.

Haftar’s campaign in the east completely ignored the new, ‘internationally recognised’ government that the United Nations cobbled together in late 2015. It’s not elected, it controls nothing outside of the city of Tripoli, and in fact it doesn’t control much of the city either. It’s the local militias, most of them Islamist, who actually run things.

That’s Haftar’s main excuse for trying to capture Tripoli. He just wants to run the country, but his Saudi, Egyptian, Russian and American backers (and don’t forget the United Arab Emirates) are all paranoid about Islamists under the bed, so he highlights that theme to keep them happy.

The Islamist militias of Tripoli, Misrata and the rest of western Libya are not all religious fanatics and secret members of al-Qaeda. They’re mostly just local boys with guns who are enjoying the ride, and need some sort of ideological justification for behaving badly. But if the stupid foreigners think they are a real menace, Haftar will take their money.

He spent last year conquering the desert south of the country, where most of the oil is, and two months ago he moved his forces back north and attacked Tripoli. The local militias rallied to the defence of the ‘internationally recognised’ government (and of their own local protection rackets), and for a while it looked like a stalemate.

In mid-April Donald Trump telephoned Haftar to thank him for his efforts to “combat terrorism and secure Libya’s oil.” More useful were the Russian-made cargo planes flying in to Haftar’s Libyan bases from Egypt, Jordan and Israel bearing – well, who knows? Maybe dates, olives and halva. Or maybe something more useful.

And now, after almost two months of deadlock, the front has started to move. Haftar’s LNA is reported to be in the eastern and southern suburbs of Tripoli and near the international airport. One LNA spearhead is allegedly in Salah al-Deen, only a few kilometres from the city centre.

Haftar’s offensive may yet fizzle out. He calls himself a field marshal, but the highest rank he ever held while actually in combat command of troops was colonel, and he didn’t do very well with that. On the other hand, the people he’s fighting aren’t exactly military geniuses either, so he could win. What would that mean?

It would mean a new Libyan dictatorship, of course, but it would also mean comparative peace in Libya and maybe an opportunity to rebuild the reasonably competent welfare state that has been destroyed in the past decade. And since Haftar is already 75, he’s not going to match Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.

When all the options are bad, you must choose the least bad, and maybe Haftar is it. And think how many people would rejoice in his victory: President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, President (and ex-General) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President Emmanuel Macron….

If all those wise men like it, who are we to say otherwise?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“He spent…useful”)

European Elections 2019

The best way of describing what just happened in the European Union elections is to say that the choices are getting clearer – and a lot of people are realising which side they are on.

The elections to the EU Parliament held last week in 28 European countries – including the United Kingdom, since three years after the Brexit referendum it still hasn’t managed to leave– was the second-biggest democratic exercise in the world. Only India’s elections are bigger. 400 million Europeans were eligible to vote, and half of them actually did.

The choice before them, in most member countries, was ‘less EU’ or ‘more EU’. Should the European Union become the semi-detached ‘Europe of the Fatherlands’ that the nationalists and the populists demand, or continue to work on creating joint institutions (like the euro common currency) that bring the members closer together?

There will never be a single answer to that question, but the two sides are sorting themselves out and you can now get a feel for the way things are going.

The hard-line nationalists took 30% of the vote in Italy (the Lega), 32% in the UK (the Brexit Party), 45% in Poland (the Law and Justice Party), and 52% of the votes in Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary. Yet, apart from the Brexit Party, they are no longer trying to leave the EU.

Populist demagogues in other EU countries – who five years ago were advocating a ‘Frexit’ in France, a ‘Nexit’ in the Netherlands, and so on – have watched the tragicomic mega-shambles of Britain’s attempted Brexit and decided that the wiser course is to stay in the EU and try to dominate it from within.

They made some headway in this election, but they still control only 112 of the European Parliament’s 750 seats. It’s not even certain that they can all come together as a single bloc: France’s National Rally, for example, is seen by some other far-right parties in the EU as too pro-Russian and encumbered by a history of anti-Semitism. If this is a tidal wave, it’s a fairly small one.

There was another, slightly bigger tsunami on the ‘more EU’ side of the argument, mainly because the Greens did so well, coming second in Germany and third in France. Strongly pro-EU liberal parties did well too – notably the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who came second there – and together they have added more seats on that side of the argument than the nationalists did on the other extreme.

The real value of this election is that it offers a reality check on the burning question of the day: is Trumpism really going to sweep Europe like it swept America? The answer is no – or at least, not so much.
Nationalist parties that strike authoritarian postures and flirt with racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes did well in some eastern European countries (although they have few immigrants and almost no Muslims). But in western Europe only one populist party, Italy’s Lega, improved on its last showing.

In France the National Rally got only 24% of the vote, whereas its predecessor, the National Front, won 34 % in the 2017 presidential election.

The Brexit Party in the United Kingdom got 32% of the vote, which sounds impressive, since its predecessor, the United Kingdom Independence Party, got only 26 % in the last EU election in 2014. But if you add the Conservative vote (which is mostly pro-Brexit) to the Brexit Party vote in this election and compare it with the UKIP+Conservative votes last time, the pro-Brexit share of the vote is down from 49% in 2014 to 41% now.

This suggests that the Trump virus is less virulent in Europe, and raises the further question: will the UK really crash out of the EU by October 31 (the current deadline), or will there be a second referendum that calls off the whole quixotic enterprise? It’s starting to feel like Brexit never happening is around a 50-50 proposition.

One symptom of the fear the Brexiters now feel is their increasingly shrill insistence that there must be no new referendum. Never mind that Nigel Farage, founder of both UKIP and the Brexit Party, talked about a second referendum when it looked like ‘Remain’ was going to score a narrow win early on the evening of the first referendum in 2016. (It ended up 52% Leave, 48% Remain.)

Never mind, either, that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has just announced that she will publish draft legislation on a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK later this week. (The first one, in 2014, rejected independence by 55%-45%.) Nobody complained about that.

The Brexit referendum is sacred, Brexiters say, and nobody is allowed to change their mind about it. However, the EU election was treated by almost all British voters as an informal referendum on Brexit, and it’s now pretty clear what would happen in a real one. It’s going to be a very hectic five months in British politics.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“One…that”)