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Algeria

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Iran Is Not An Exception

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. It begins to seem possible that it could be one of the last, if not the very last.

The protests that broke out on Friday in at least 21 cities in Iran seem to have died down, although that is uncertain since the entire country is silenced by an almost complete internet shut-down. But the death toll, according to Amnesty International, is at least 106. Other reports suggest that it might be twice that number.

This is at least five times the number that were killed in the last outbreak of protests in late 2017, and unofficial reports put the number of injured at around 3,000. Snipers have been firing into the crowds, who are denounced by state-controlled media as ‘hooligans’ and ‘thugs’ who are under foreign influence, or even in foreign pay.

The pace of the protests is picking up, too. The previous mass protests were way back in 2009, and were against the manipulation of election results, not against the regime as a whole. In 2017, and again this time, they were against the whole system of repression and corruption that sustains the theocratic rule of the ayatollahs.

This latest and biggest outburst of defiance in the streets is at least partly due to the unilateral trade sanctions imposed on Iran last year by the Trump administration. Washington scarcely bothers to deny that the real objective of its sanctions is regime change, or that the impoverishment of the Iranian population is the means chosen to attain that goal.

In the past year Iranian oil exports have dwindled to less than 200,000 barrels per day, compared to two million bpd before the US reimposed oil sanctions almost exactly a year ago. Inflation has soared, the value of the Iranian rial has collapsed, and life has become much harder for the poor.

The poor have nothing to fall back on and quickly become desperate. The young had nothing to start with, and see no future for themselves in an economy that is currently shrinking by 6% annually. These two groups are the real target of the sanctions, and the strategy seems to be working.

The trigger for these protests was a 50% rise in the price of petrol (gas), but that was just a last straw, not a major economic blow to the poor. It’s still only $0.12 a litre ($0.45 per US gallon), and most of the poor don’t have cars anyway. Indeed, the government’s stated reason for the price increase is to raise $2.5 billion a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes.

The poor are not impressed, since their health costs have gone up by 20% and the price of meat and vegetables has risen by around 50% in the past twelve months. It’s their anger and desperation that drive the poor and the young out into the streets, but it’s really the sanctions that have made them so angry and desperate.

So can the religious despotism that has ruled the country for the past forty years survive? In the short run, probably yes, because the ayatollahs have several million fanatical and well-armed supporters in the Revolutionary Guard and its part-time affiliate, the Basij militia. In the slightly longer term (2-5 years), probably not.

Because most Iranians follow the Shia version of Islam while all the countries around them except Iraq are overwhelmingly Sunni, Iran is seen as a special case whose politics has little relevance for elsewhere in the region. That is not true. The differences are big, but the politics in the region’s various countries tends to march in step, or even to rhyme.

Right next door to Iran, in Iraq, other young men are protesting in the streets, and there too they are being shot down by the ‘security’ forces. Two months ago thousands of young Egyptian men and women took to the streets to demand the resignation of the military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Four thousand were arrested. The non-violent revolutions in Sudan and Algeria continue.

In Egypt, Algeria and Sudan money and privileges are monopolised by a military elite, in Iraq by an elected but deeply corrupt civilian elite, and in Iran by a religious and paramilitary elite. There is poverty and anti-regime anger everywhere, but in Iran it is also being stoked by Donald Trump.

Revolution in Iran would probably be a long and bloody process, because the theocratic regime has a coherent ideology and would go down fighting. Nobody knows what kind of regime would follow, and nobody knows if such a revolution would stay confined to Iran.

Despite the Sunni-Shia gulf, the last revolution in Iran inflamed similar Islamist movements in many Arab countries. Another Iranian revolution could also ignite anti-regime revolts elsewhere in the region. Trump should be careful what he wishes for.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The trigger…desperate”)

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

Algeria: Hope and Fear

One of the most popular slogans in the street protests in Algeria has been ‘Neither beard, nor kamis, nor police’. That needs a bit of translation.

‘Beard’ refers to male Muslims who want to demonstrate how devout they are, ‘kamis’ refers to the costume worn by Muslim females of the same persuasion (from shalwar kameez, the long shirt and baggy trousers worn by many Pakistani women), and ‘police’…well, that one is obvious.

After six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the protesters are celebrating their first major victory. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 82-year-old president with the world’s most spectacular comb-over, has been forced to resign. But this slogan is really about the next step.

The mostly youthful demonstrators are signaling that while they do want to get rid of the whole regime, not just its figurehead, they do not have anything to do with political Islam (beards and kamis). It’s a necessary reassurance for most older Algerians, who are haunted by the fact that the last time the regime nearly lost power, the opposition party was Islamist, and it ended in a ghastly ten-year civil war.

Islamism was very popular among opposition groups across the Arab world in the 1980s, and when the Algerian regime took the risk of holding an election in late 1991, the Islamist party won. Or rather, it was clearly going to win when ‘le pouvoir’ (The Power), as Algerians call the regime, cancelled the second round of the election and took back control.

The Islamists responded by launching an armed rebellion. It turned into a decade-long civil war in which both the Islamist rebels and the ‘le pouvoir’ used terror against the civilians caught in the middle. At least 100,000 Algerians were murdered, the regime finally won in 2002, and the population was so scarred by this experience that it has remained submissive – until now.

The current wave of protesters are on a roll, but getting rid of Bouteflika is just the first step. The interim leader who has to organise a new election within 90 days, Senate president Abdelkader Bensalah, is a regime loyalist and a close associate of Bouteflika. And the generals and powerful businessmen who really control the regime are still hoping that a change of leaders will be enough to send the protesters home.

It won’t. What’s really driving this youth-led revolt is desperation: one-third of the country’s under-30s are unemployed. The regime can no longer buy them off with cheap public housing and subsidised jobs because oil revenues have fallen steeply, and they are too young to remember the horrors of the civil war.

Since the under-30s are two-thirds of the country’s population, they are probably going to win. Having been in power ever since the end of Algeria’s war of independence from France in 1962, ‘le pouvoir’ is now going to be dismantled. The question is what happens next, and nobody knows.

The precedents elsewhere in the Arab world are not encouraging. When Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak (29 years in power) was forced out of power by popular protests in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood won the subsequent election, but the army overthrew them in a very bloody coup and is back in power. The attempted democratic revolutions in other Arab countries also mostly ended also ended in disaster.

When Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy (42 years in power) was overthrown and killed in the same year, there were no free elections, and the civil war started right away. Most of the contending groups are Islamist of one flavour or another, and the war is still going on.

When Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad (18 years in power) faced a challenge from pro-democracy protests in 2012, he was not overthrown, but the civil war that ensued has destroyed half the country and is only now coming to an end.

So why would anyone think that Algeria can do it better?

One reason is that most of the young in Algeria really aren’t Islamists any more. Generational turnover has done its work, and the current youth generation is mostly secular, pro-democracy, and animated by non-violent ideals.

But that’s about it. There aren’t many more reasons to believe that Algeria will turn out differently second time around, and there are lots of reasons to fear that it won’t be different this time. Yet hope springs eternal.

Tunisia managed to turn itself into a democracy non-violently in 2011, and despite huge unemployment among its under-30s it still is one. It’s hard to see how freeing Algeria from the dead hand of a superannuated dictatorship will really change the grim economic prospects of its younger generation – after all, that hasn’t happened in Tunisia after almost a decade of democracy – but it’s worth a try anyway. Despite the risk.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“When…end”)

The Future of Food Riots

9 January 2011

The Future of Food Riots

By Gwynne Dyer

    If all the food in the world were shared out evenly, there would be enough to
go around. That has been true for centuries now: if food was scarce, the problem was that it wasn’t in the right place, but there was no global shortage. However, that will not be true much longer.

    The food riots began in Algeria more than a week ago, and they are going to
spread. During the last global food shortage, in 2008, there was serious rioting in Mexico, Indonesia, and Egypt. We may expect to see that again this time, only bigger and more widespread.

    Most people in these countries live in a cash economy, and a large proportion live in cities. They buy their food, they don’t grow it. That makes them very vulnerable, because they have to eat almost as much as people in rich countries do, but their incomes are much lower.

    The poor, urban multitudes in these countries (including China and India) spend up to half of their entire income on food, compared to only about ten percent in the rich countries. When food prices soar, these people quickly find that they simply lack the money to go on feeding themselves and their children properly – and food prices now are at an all-time high.

   “We are entering a danger territory,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, on 5 January. The price of a basket of cereals, oils, dairy, meat and sugar that reflects global consumption patterns has risen steadily for six months, and has just broken through the previous record, set during the last food panic in June, 2008.

    “There is still room for prices to go up much higher,” Abbassian added, “if for example the dry conditions in Argentina become a drought, and if we start having problems with winter kill in the northern hemisphere for the wheat crops.” After the loss of at least a third of the Russian and Ukrainina grain crop in last summer’s heat wave and the devastating floods in Australia and Pakistan, there’s no margin for error left .

   It was Russia and India banning grain exports in order to keep domestic prices down that set the food prices on the international market soaring. Most countries cannot insulate themselves from this global price rise, because they depend on imports for a lot of domestic consumption. But that means that a lot of their population cannot buy enough food for their families, so they go hungry. Then they get angry, and the riots start.

   Is this food emergency a result of global warming? Maybe, but all these droughts, heat waves and floods could also just be a run of really bad luck. What is nearly certain is that the warming will continue, and that in the future there will be many more weather disasters due to climate change. Food production is going to take a big hit.

   Global food prices are already spiking whenever there are a few local crop failures, because the supply barely meets demand even now. As the big emerging economies grow, Chinese and Indian and Indonesian citizens eat more meat, which places a great strain on grain supplies. Moreover, world population is now passing through seven billion, on its way to nine billion by 2050. We will need a lot more food than we used to.

   Some short-term fixes are possible. If the US government ended the subsidies for growing maize (corn) for “bio-fuels”, it would return about a quarter of US crop land to food production. If people ate a little less meat, if more African land was brought into production, if more food was eaten and less was thrown away, then maybe we could buy ourselves another fifteen or twenty years before demand really outstripped supply.

    On the other hand, about a third of all the irrigated land in the world depends on pumping groundwater up from aquifers that are rapidly depleting. When the flow of irrigation water stops, the yield of that highly productive land will drop hugely. Desertification is spreading in many regions, and a large amount of good agricultural land is simply being paved over each year. We have a serious problem here.

   Climate change is going to make the situation immeasurably worse. The modest warming that we have experience so far may not be the main cause of the floods, droughts and violent storms that have hurt this year’s crops, but the rise in temperature will continue because we cannot find the political will to stop the greenhouse-gas emissions.

    The rule of thumb is that we lose about 10 percent of world food production for every rise of one degree C in average global temperature. So the shortages will grow and the price of food will rise inexorably over the years. The riots will return again and again.

    In some places the rioting will turn into revolution. In others, the rioters will become refugees and push up against the borders of countries that don’t want to let them in. Or maybe we can get the warming under control before it does too much damage. Hold your breath, squeeze your eyes tight shut, and wish for a miracle.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Some…here”)

One degree C is 1.8 degrees F.

Afghanistan in Sixteen Characters

24 February 2010

Afghanistan in Sixteen Characters

By Gwynne Dyer

“By May 1928 the basic principles of guerilla warfare…had already been evolved; that is, the sixteen-character formula: The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
Mao Tse-tung, 1936

Not many of the Taliban guerillas in Afghanistan have read Mao on guerilla warfare, but then, they knew how to do it anyway. The current crop of officers in the Western armies that are fighting them don’t seem to have read their Mao either, which is a more serious omission. The generation before them certainly did.

Mao Tse-tung didn’t invent guerilla warfare, but he did write the book on it. The “sixteen-character formula” sums it up: never stand and fight, just stay in business and wear the enemy down. “The ability to run away is the essence of the guerilla,” as Mao put it – and that is why the much-ballyhooed “battle” for Marjah and Nad Ali, two small towns in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is irrelevant to the outcome of the war.

Breathless reports of the “battle” by embedded journalists have filled the American and European media for the past two weeks, as if winning it might make a difference. The truth is that some of the local Taliban fighters have been left to sell their lives as dearly as possible, while most have been pulled back or sent home to await recall. “The enemy advances; we retreat.”

Mao didn’t invent guerilla warfare; he was merely a very successful practitioner who tried to codify the rules. Afghans don’t really need instruction in it, since that has been the hill-tribes’ style of warfare since time immemorial. The only new element in the equation, since the 1940s, is that these wars have almost all ended in victory for the guerillas.

The Jewish war against British occupation in Palestine in the 1940s; the war against the French in Algeria in the 1950s; the Vietnam war in the 1960s; the Rhodesian war in the 1970s; the victory of the Afghan “mujahedeen” against the Soviet army in the 1980s: in these and several dozen other wars, Western armies with all their massive firepower eventually lost to the lightly armed nationalists.

By contrast, the number of times when they won can be counted on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand. By the 1970s, Western armies had figured out why they always lost, and began to avoid such struggles – but now, they seem to have forgotten again.

The guerillas always won, in that era, because the Western armies were fighting to retain direct control of Third-World countries or impose some puppet regime on them, at a time when the people of those countries had already awakened to nationalism. All the guerillas had to do was observe the sixteen-character formula and stay in business.

They could accept a loss ratio of dozens or hundreds dead for each foreign soldier killed, because they had an endless supply of local 18-year-olds eager to join the fight. Whereas the Western armies could not take many casualties or go on fighting for many years, because popular support at home was always fragile.

In the end, the Western army could always quit and go home without suffering any especially terrible consequences. The locals did not have that option, since they were already home, so they always had more staying power. Eventually, pressure at home forced the foreigners to give up and leave – and the Taliban’s leaders know that. They watched the Russians leave only thirty years ago.

The current generation of Western officers are in denial, as if the past half-century didn’t happen. They parrot some of the slogans of the era of guerilla wars, like the need to win the “hearts and minds” of the population, but it’s just empty words. The phrase dates from the Vietnam War, but the tactic didn’t work there and it isn’t working in Afghanistan.

The plan, in this “offensive” in Helmand province, is to capture the towns (“clear and hold”), and then saturate the area with Afghan troops and police and win the locals’ hearts and minds by providing better security and public services. It might work if all the people involved on both sides were bland, interchangeable characters from The Sims, but they are not.

The people of Helmand province are Pashtuns, and the Taliban are almost exclusively a Pashtun organisation. The people that the Western armies are fighting are local men: few Taliban fighters die more than a day’s walk from home. Whereas almost none of the “Afghan” troops and police who are supposed to win local minds and hearts are Pashtuns.

They are mostly Tajiks from the north who speak Dari, not Pashto. (Very few Pashtuns join the Kabul regime’s army and police.) Even if these particular Afghan police are better trained and less prone to steal money, do drugs, and rape young men at checkpoints than their colleagues elsewhere, they are unwelcome outsiders in Helmand.

This is just another post-imperial guerilla war, and it will almost certainly end in the same way as all the others. Thirty years ago, any Western military officer could have told you that, but large organisations often forget their own history.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“They could…fragile”; and “The current…Afghanistan”)