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Arab Spring

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Egypt: Triumph and Tragedy

Exactly five years after Egypt’s democratic revolution triumphed, the country is once more ruled by a military office. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in July 2013 and is even nastier than his predecessors.

More than 600 Egyptians were sentenced to death last year, mostly in mass trials, and most of the cases involved people who had gone to pro-democracy protests.

When Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign from the Egyptian presidency on Feb. 9, 2011, by nationwide non-violent demonstrations, there was an explosion of joy. It ended an unbroken 59 years when thinly disguised military dictators ruled the country and their cronies looted the economy.

Egypt’s democratic revolution followed closely in the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution that triggered the “Arab Spring,” but it mattered far more because the country’s 90 million people account for almost a third of the world’s Arabs. Despite the disaster in Syria, we would still count the Arab Spring as a success if the Egyptian revolution had survived, but it was never going to be easy.

The protesters who drove the revolution in the cities were mostly young, well-educated and secular, but most Egyptians are rural, poorly educated and devout. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood had for decades been providing free social services to poor Egyptians. They were grateful and they were pious, so of course they voted for the Islamists.

The young revolutionaries should have understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to win Egypt’s first free election. Most of them were horrified when “their” revolution actually ended up making the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.

Morsi had his own problems, including trying to balance his own party’s expectation of rapid Islamization with the reality that the army and much of the urban population were committed to a secular Egypt. He was not good at tightrope walking, so what he probably saw as reasonable compromises were viewed by his opponents as forcing political Islam down people’s throats.

If his opponents had also more political experience, they would have calculated the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to lose the next election. The Egyptian economy was a disaster, so in four years’ time they would be deeply unpopular.

Instead, in June 2013, just one year after Morsi became president, they launched mass demonstrations demanding a new election – and called on the army to support their cause. El-Sisi, whom Morsi had trustingly appointed as defense minister, led a military coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

El-Sisi took off his uniform and had himself elected president. The army is back in power, and the number of secular political activists in jail is now probably greater than the number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

“The level of repression now is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime,” Egyptian investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat told The Guardian last month. “People from older generations say it is worse than even the worst periods of the 1950s and 60s.”

It is too soon to conclude that a modern democracy cannot thrive in the Arab world? Tunisia, after all, is still managing to hang on to its revolution, and the sheer number of people that Sisi has jailed suggests that his regime is far from secure. But nobody in Egypt is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the country’s democratic revolution.

End of the Arab Spring

7 July 2013

End of the Arab Spring?

By Gwynne Dyer

If the people in charge of the various opposition parties in Egypt had any strategic vision, they would not have launched the mass protests that caused the army to oust President Mohammed Morsi on 4 July. They would have bided their time and waited for the next election. Because there is probably still going to be a next election in Egypt, despite the coup, and now the Muslim Brotherhood might actually win it.

There is a good deal of chatter in the media at the moment about the “end of the Arab Spring,” some of it by commentators who can barely conceal their delight. Egypt, with almost one-third of the world’s total Arab population, was the great symbol of the democratic movement’s success, and now Egyptian democracy is in a mess. But the drama still has a long way to run.

Morsi is now under arrest, as are many other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the passionate demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the streets of Egypt’s cities make it hard to imagine that any compromise is possible. Indeed, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned last weekend that Egypt risks stumbling into a civil war like the one that has devastated Syria.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, on the other hand, justified the military coup by claiming that it had been the only alternative to civil war – which could, he said, have been as bad as Somalia. Really? One suspects that he doesn’t know much about Somalia. Indeed, one suspects that he doesn’t really know much about his own country either (he has spent most of his career abroad).

There was no risk of civil war in Egypt before last week’s military intervention, and there is no risk of civil war now either. What we are seeing is a no-holds-barred struggle for power between rival political movements, in a system where the political rules are newly written, hotly disputed, and poorly understood. And all the players have made some serious mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis of last year’s 51.7 percent majority for Morsi in the presidential election, assumed that it had the unquestioning support of half the population. This was probably not true.

Many voted for Morsi in recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s long resistance to six decades of military dictatorship. Others voted for him in gratitude for the Brotherhood’s unfailing support for the poor, or in disgust at the fact that Morsi’s only opponent in the second round of the election was a left-over from the Mubarak regime.

Perhaps as few as half of them actually voted for the Brotherhood’s core project of Islamising Egyptian law and forcing its own version of Islamic values on Egyptian society – but the Brothers seemed to think they all had. Even if that had been true, trying to impose fundamental changes on a country with the support of only half the population was not wise.

Some of the constitutional changes that Morsi imposed, and some of his tactics for pushing them through, may actually have been the result of political compromises within the Brotherhood, where he constantly had to fend off the fanatics who wanted even more extreme measures. Nevertheless, the secular opposition parties inevitably saw him as an extremist, and genuinely feared that he would somehow manage to force the whole package on Egypt.

So the secular parties responded with extra-constitutional tactics of their own: mass demonstrations that were explicitly intended to trigger a military take-over that would sideline Morsi and the Brotherhood. In only four days of demos, they succeeded, in large part because the army, a resolutely secular organisation, had its own grave misgivings about where Morsi’s government was taking Egypt.

But the army hasn’t actually seized power. It has appointed Adly Mansour, the head of the Constitutional Supreme Court, as interim president, with the task of organising new parliamentary and presidential elections. It will not be possible to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from those elections without turning the whole process into a farce – especially since the Brotherhood will probably be going through some changes of its own.

The Muslim Brotherhood took little part in the 2011 revolution, and the men at the top, including Morsi, were utterly unprepared for power. They are now likely to be replaced by a younger generation of leaders who are more flexible and more attuned to the realities of power. They might even win the next election, despite all Morsi’s mistakes this time round.

That’s the real irony here. If the opposition parties had only left Morsi in power, his unilateral actions and his inability to halt Egypt’s drastic economic decline would have guaranteed an opposition victory at the next election. Now it’s all up in the air again.

But democratic politics is far from over in Egypt. Foolish things have been done, but the Arab Spring is not dead.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 3 and 4. (“Morsi…abroad”)

 

 

The Rich, the Poor and the Hungry

15 August 2012

The Rich, the Poor and the Hungry

By Gwynne Dyer

Two months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture forecast the biggest maize (corn) harvest in history: 376 million tonnes. After two months of record heat and drought in the US Midwest, it has dropped its forecast to 274 million tonnes. So by early July it was predicting that the price per bushel of maize would exceed $8 for the first time in history, and it’s now forecasting $8.90.

The heat wave in Russia, while nowhere near as bad as the one in 2010, is also cutting deeply into Russian wheat production. There will still be enough for domestic consumption, but Andrei Sisov of the Moscow-based farming consultancy SovEcon said last week that he expected Russian wheat exports to drop from 28 million tonnes to only 13 million. For this and other weather-related reasons, wheat prices are on their way up too.

High wheat prices hit human consumers directly, but high maize prices hit even harder in the long run because huge amounts of maize are used to feed animals and provide oil for processed foods. World food prices in general are on the way back up, and it’s beginning to look like a pattern, not a series of accidents.

The last big price spike, in 2007-09, had a huge impact in developing countries, where many people spend around 40 percent of their income on food (compared with only about 10 percent in developed countries). If you’re already spending almost half your income on food and the price soars, you just have to give your children less food – which is why some people see the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” as delayed reactions to the last spike.

Meanwhile, on a different planet entirely, the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and research arm of management consultancy McKinsey & Company, published another report in June. It’s the latest in an endless series of ever-bolder estimates by various “global institutes” of how fast the demand for goods and services is growing around the world.

The themes of McKinsey’s new report, “Urban World: Cities and the Rise of the Consuming Class”, are familiar enough. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving to Asia; huge numbers of new “consumers” – people with average annual incomes over $3,600 who buy more than just food and basic shelter – will be joining the global market by 2025; there are wonderful opportunities out there for clever investors.

The only new wrinkle in this document is the bit about how 65 percent of “global growth” to 2025 will happen in the “City 600″, as they call it: the world’s 600 biggest cities. And what McKinsey calls “the Emerging 440 cities” – those among the 600 that are in the rapidly developing countries – will account for almost half of the total growth in world demand to 2025.

Then come the numbers. As the emerging economies grow, they’ll all start buying fridges and baby food and, eventually, cars. Whoopee! We’ll all get rich selling things to the Chinese!

But nowhere in the report does McKinsey deal seriously with the impact of a predicted total of 2.6 billion consumers, up from only 0.8 billion now, on world demand for food. Yet meat consumption soars as incomes rise. Feeding animals to produce meat puts huge pressure on grain resources, so all food prices rise, for rich and poor alike.

Combine the rise in meat consumption with an extra billion people and severe constraints of food production, most of them related to climate change, and world food prices in 2025 could be two to three times higher in real terms than they are now. That means that the poorest starve, and that a lot of McKinsey’s promised new “consumers” – those who can spend on other things than sheer survival – don’t make it into the middle class after all.

The same rationing by price is likely to apply to everything else that matters. Indeed, the prices of energy and raw materials, which fell consistently through most of the 20th century, are already back up to where they were in real terms a century ago. There are not going to be 1.8 billion new consumers in thirteen years’ time, and the poor will be more desperate than ever, and political stability in many developing countries will be just a memory.

The demands of consumers, like the sheer number of human beings, can in theory expand indefinitely, but on a finite planet with dwindling resources and a changing climate the cost of meeting consumer demand is going to go up very steeply. It is probably going to get very ugly out there.

And as for China, the poster child for miraculously fast economic growth – well, China has one-seventh as much water and one-tenth as much arable land per capita as North America. When things get tough, that is going to matter a lot.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. “The last…spike”; and “The only…2025″

 

 

Syria XIV (or whatever)

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.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 12. (“I made…actually”; “So many…Damascus”; and “At this…process”)