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Egyptian Election

13 May 2012

Egypt Elects a President

By Gwynne Dyer

After eleven demonstrators were killed outside the Ministry of Defence in Cairo early this month, Mohammad al-Assaf, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), expressed his astonishment that anybody might suspect the military of wanting to rig the forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt. “The armed forces and its Supreme Council are committed to handing over power at the scheduled time or even before 30 June,” he said.

State television, still controlled by supporters of the old regime, explained that the people who attacked the demonstrators were local residents of the Abbassiya district who had grown sick of continued demonstrations. What could be more understandable than that?

It’s so easy to imagine the men of Abbassiya spontaneously rummaging around in their houses for pistols and shotguns, determined to end the nuisance that made it almost impossible to get to the new metro station. Then they gathered at 2 am in two separate groups and simultaneously charged the demonstrators from two different directions, as random mobs of disgruntled citizens so often do.

Nine of the eleven dead demonstrators were killed by head shots, a sure sign that amateurs were at work. Only a died-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist would suspect that the attackers were the same old gang of thugs-for-hire that the old regime turned to when it wanted to use deniable but lethal violence on crowds of demonstrators.

Oh, all right then, have it your way. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been Egypt’s transitional government since the revolution of 11 February, 2011, was indeed behind the murders – or at least, some people very close to the SCAF were. That’s why the soldiers and police watching all this did not intervene for six hours. So the question is: what did the senior military hope to achieve by doing this?

Partly, they were just being their usual clumsy, brutal selves. But they were also defending their policy of removing all the radicals from the race.

Most of the demonstrators in front of the Defence Ministry were protesting against the disqualification in mid-April of their presidential candidate, Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail of the Nour Party. He was a front-runner in the presidential race, two of the others being Khairat al-Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman – both of whom were disqualified too.

Abu Ismail was disqualified because the new parliament passed a xenophobic law demanding that the parents and grandparents of any candidate must be Egyptian and nothing else. The Nour Party had voted for that law – but then it turned out that Abu Ismail’s late mother had also taken American citizenship before she died. Or so the junta-appointed Higher Presidential Election Commission claimed, although he denied it.

The result of the military’s machinations is that ten of the 27 candidates for the presidency have been removed, including all the more extreme ones with any serious prospect of winning the election. The front-runners among the remaining thirteen are two Islamic candidates and two secular ones, none of whom could be called extremists.

Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who took the place of the disqualified Khairat al-Shater, has all the charisma of a cabbage. He may even win fewer votes than Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood man who is running as an independent.

On the secular side, is Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and ex-head of the Arab League, and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq, who was briefly prime minister in the last days of the Mubarak regime. All moderates.

It’s impossible to predict who will win, because the election on 23-24 May will only produce two front-runners, who will then face a run-off contest on mid-June. What can be said with confidence is that the man the armed forces finally hand power over to at the end of June will not be a radical.

Disappointed? You wanted Egyptians to conduct a radical political experiment you would never want to see tried in your own country? Tough.

In 1998 there was a similar non-violent democratic revolution in another big Muslim country. The dictator who was overthrown, like Hosni Mubarak, was a former general who had ruled his country for more than twenty years. The first elected president was the leader of a prominent Islamic organisation, which frightened the country’s 10 percent Christian minority.

Islamic parties also gained a dominant position in the new parliament, and the more excitable observers predicted national disaster. However, Indonesia today is a stable democracy with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Indonesia is far from perfect. The military still has enough clout to ensure that “defence” spending stays high, and the police are more corrupt than ever. But the mainstream Islamic parties have stopped demanding Sharia law and Muslim-Christian violence has practically ended. The place is a genuine but deeply imperfect democracy – like India, say, or the United States.

Nobody in Indonesia wants the former dictator Suharto back, and already almost nobody in Egypt wants Mubarak back. It will get better in Egypt, though more slowly than most Egyptians hope.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. “(It’s so…do”; and “Abu Ismail…denied it”)


The Falklands and All That

11 April 2012

The Falklands and All That

By Gwynne Dyer

International human rights campaigner and occasional actor Sean Penn, whose well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize continues to be delayed for mysterious reasons, was the first famous foreigner to lend his support to the cause. “The world today is not going to tolerate any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology,” he told Cristina Kirchner, the president of Argentina. He was speaking, of course, of the Falkland Islands.

This was music to the ears of Kirchner, who has marked the 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion and British recapture of the islands with a high-profile nationalist campaign to “recover” the Falklands (or rather Las Malvinas, as Argentines call them). Penn then went home to California, but it wasn’t long before Fidel Castro weighed in too. Unfortunately, Castro hadn’t read the script.

Kirchner’s chief talking point was an accusation that Britain was “militarising” the South Atlantic by sending an “ultra-modern destroyer” to patrol the waters around the islands. (It replaces an obsolete, leaky destroyer, we must suppose.) But Castro unhelpfully mocked the British, claiming that “the English only have one little boat left. All the English can do is send over a destroyer, they can’t even send an aircraft carrier.”

One could make a meal of this silly quarrel – “The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb,” as Argentine poet and essayist Jorge Luis Borges once said – but it wouldn’t be a very nourishing meal. A more useful approach would be to consider why it is so fundamentally silly.

It’s not that the history of the rival claims is silly (although it is: first French settlers in 1764, then British in 1765, then the French hand their share over to the Spanish in 1767, followed by half a dozen more changes of ownership or control until the islands finally fall under permanent British rule in 1833). Nor is it that the islands are now worth considerably more than a comb (though they are, with seabed oil and rich fisheries surrounding them).

It’s just that you are no longer allowed to shift control of territories from one country to another by force. That was the way the world was run for thousands of years, but after the Second World War the nations of the world changed the rule and in effect froze all the borders where they were at that moment. They did that not because it was just, but because most wars were over territory, and wars had got too big and destructive to fight any more.

Argentina can claim that the brief presence of Argentine colonists in the island at one point before 1833 gives it an eternal right to the islands, and Britain can insist that the wishes of the present, English-speaking residents, who want to remain British, must be respected, but neither is really relevant. The Falklands will remain British because we now define any attempt to change borders by force as “aggression”.

This is the point at which the frantic protests about British “colonialism” usually erupt. They come from Argentina, where the European settlers dispossessed the aboriginal inhabitants. They come from Sean Penn, whose house sits on land that was part of Mexico until the United States conquered it in 1846. They come from everybody who want to draw a line under history just after the situation that favours their interests came to pass.

But the line was actually drawn in 1945, and it has proved remarkably robust. When new African countries got their independence, they got it within the existing borders, even though those were originally drawn by the imperial powers with little heed to ethnic realities. When the old Soviet Union fell apart, all fifteen successor states accepted the administrative divisions of that empire as their new national borders.

And whenever somebody who hadn’t got the message tried to change their borders by force, pleading historical justice, ethnic similarity, or geographical tidiness, they were firmly rebuffed by almost everybody else. Indonesia seized and annexed East Timor in 1975, but eventually had to give it its freedom. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, but was driven out by an international army after only a few months.

And Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982. It was driven out by a British force, not an international one, but the United Kingdom would never have fought such a difficult war over islands then seen as almost valueless if it had not had international law on its side.

Argentina’s action was privately seen as inexcusable by almost every other government, even if its Latin American neighbours did not say so in public. The generals who ordered the invasion were ignorant men who didn’t understand that the world had changed, and they lost power in Argentina as a result of the war. More importantly, the law was upheld.

And that is why Alsace-Lorraine, after changing hands a dozen times in its history, will remain French. California, similarly, will remain American however much the Mexicans dislike it. As for Kashmir and the West Bank – but that’s a subject for another day.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“Argentina…aggression”; and “Argentina’s…upheld”


Biodiversity and Small Mercies

30 October 2010

Biodiversity and Small Mercies

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes we have to be grateful for small mercies. The deal on biodiversity that more than 190 countries agreed in Nagoya, Japan last Friday was, as these things usually are, “a day late and a dollar short,” but it’s a lot better than nothing. It’s even better than most people expected.

Technically, it was only the 10th biennial “Conference of the Parties” who signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) eighteen years ago, but it was not just another meeting. It was a serious effort to move past rhetoric and come to grips with how to stop the slow-motion catastrophe of species extinction. (The current rate of extinction is at least a hundred times higher than the historical rate, perhaps as much as ten thousand times higher.)

The negotiations went right down to the wire, but after three weeks of haggling they got a deal on Friday night. The most important target set by the Strategic Plan 2011-2020 will increase the area of protected land in the world – no farming or grazing, no forestry – from 12.5 percent to 17 percent.

That’s almost half the land that should really remain untouched if nature is to go on producing the “ecosystem services” that keep our environment relatively stable. It’s a dollar short, of course: we will ultimately have to give forty percent of the land surface of the planet back to nature if we really want long-term stability. But it’s a good start.

Even more importantly, the Strategic Plan will increase the protected area of the oceans from only one percent to ten percent by 2020. If that is done in the right places, it would create no-fishing-allowed marine reserves big enough to allow the many endangered fish populations, some of them down to ten percent or less of their former numbers, time and space to recover. (Fish multiply pretty rapidly if you give them time to mature and breed.)

The other big achievement of the conference is a deal that promises governments in the developing world, and also indigenous peoples in those countries, fair payment for genetic material that ends up in highly profitable first-world crops and drugs. There are also useful measures to protect life in wetlands, forests, freshwater systems and coastal zones – and the financing to pay for it.

This is particularly encouraging after the climate change conference in Copenhagen last December ended in a complete train-wreck, for the Climate Change Convention is the long-lost twin of the biodiversity treaty. Maintaining the stable, benign climate of the past 10,000 years is critical to the well-being of a global civilisation that now numbers almost seven billion human beings – but so is preserving the web of life that underpins that climate.

Both treaties were born at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, an event that was extraordinary in its ambition. The Cold War had just ended, the notion of a single global civilisation was gaining ground, and the realisation was dawning that the sheer scale and heedless economic style of that civilisation were starting to devastate the environment that supported it. The summit was an attempt to stop the destruction before it went too far.

The climate change treaty was intended to tackle the key issue of global warming, but scientists and even lay people were beginning to understand that everything joins up. About forty percent of human greenhouse gas emissions, for example, come from forestry and agriculture, and those same activities are decimating or destroying the living species, many of them microscopic, whose interactions maintain the environment we live in.

But nothing much happened after the signature of the biodiversity convention. The rain-forests of the Amazon, the Congo and Indonesia continued to be cut down, the world’s fisheries drifted closer to collapse, and though many deplored the neglect, no government did anything about it. After a good start in the 1990s, the climate change accord also stalled after the United States began actively sabotaging the talks under President George W. Bush.

Now the world is emerging from that wasted decade, and all sorts of things that were put on hold at the height of the terrorist panic, or just postponed because the United States wouldn’t play, are back on the agenda. Not always with instant success, as the Copenhagen shambles amply demonstrated – but real progress is possible again, and last week in Nagoya is the proof of that.

Of course, you probably expected me to write about the two little explosive packets found aboard cargo aircraft last week, because that’s so much more exciting than the fate of the planet. But everybody else is doing that, and there really isn’t much new to say about it anyway. Apart from the observation that a civilisation that thinks the biggest threat it faces is terrorism is a dangerously deluded civilisation.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Both…far”)

Climate Change: Two Cheers for Two Degrees

10 July 2009

Climate Change: Two Cheers for Two Degrees

By Gwynne Dyer

This is how the human race does business. What the G8 summit in Italy decided to do about climate change last week was much less than is necessary, but the very best that a realist could have hoped for. Some tens of millions of people will probably die as a result, or some hundreds of millions if we are really unlucky, but there is still time to avoid the worst. And anyway, it can’t be helped: this is the way we do business.

An example. President Barack Obama has hired the best people in the business as his climate advisers. They know exactly how grave the situation is, and so does Obama. Yet when his chief scientific adviser, John Holdren, was asked why the US would not commit to the same target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 as the European Union, he replied as follows.

“If we had not wasted the last eight years, we could probably achieve that target. But we did waste the last eight years and in consequence, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to officially embrace a target that is not realistically within reach.” Analyse that sentence, and what it says is: We didn’t do what we should have for the past eight years, so we can’t do what we should for the next twelve years either.

Get upset about it if you like, but this is how the system works. Obama cannot ignore the fact that climate change denial is still stronger in the United States than anywhere else, and that much of the US Congress is a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industries. He’s going as far as he can, for now. He can’t go any farther even if what he’s doing is not good enough, which it isn’t.

All the parts of the system work like that, not just the American parts. The Indian government, for example, cannot ignore the resentment felt by most Indians when their country is asked to cut its greenhouse gas emissions and slow its own development to deal with a problem that India had little role in creating.

Almost all the excess greenhouse gas that is in the air now were put there by the old industrialised countries, yet the newly industrialising ones like India will be hurt first and worst by the resulting climate change. Cutting their emissions means slowing their escape from poverty, which the old rich countries were never required to do – and if they refuse, climate change will hurt them even faster and worse. No matter which way they jump, India’s decision-makers will face the anger of the voters.

Every country comes to the table with powerful lobbies at home to satisfy, and it’s something of a miracle that the eighteen biggest emitters, countries that together account for 80 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions, all managed to agree that the average global temperature should never be allowed to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1900 level. But there were other important things that they didn’t agree on.

The big industrialised countries of the G8 (US, Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada) said they would cut their emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and asked the developing countries to cut their emissions enough to produce 50 percent global cuts by the same date. The developing countries refused.

But those same rapidly industrialising countries of the G5 (China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa) then called the rich countries’ bluff by demanding that the G8 set an interim target for emissions cuts by 2020. Any leader can make promises for 2050, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be around by then. Promises for 2020, on the other hand, may fall due while you’re still in the game – so the G8 leaders refused.

Nevertheless, the idea that all these countries, plus five other big emitters (the European Union, Indonesia, Egypt, South Korea and Australia) would actually agree in mid-2009 on a never-exceed target of +2 degrees C would have been seen as fantasy only eighteen months ago. “It certainly doesn’t give you a roadmap on how you should get there but at least they’ve defined the destination,” said Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chair of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.

Well, not quite, because even at only 2 degrees C hotter the world would be running out of food (global warming hits food production very badly), and that would lead to waves of refugees, failed states, and savage local wars over the remaining water, especially in the sub-tropical regions. Moreover, the two-degree target gives us only a fifty percent chance of avoiding tipping points that would lead to runaway warming.

So we ought to have much more ambitious targets now, and strict penalties for those countries that miss or evade them. Our children’s future really does depend on it. But we can’t have stricter targets yet, because the international political system does not work that fast – and we have no time to re-design it.

 If we are lucky, some early disasters that don’t kill too many people will frighten the world’s countries into accepting tougher cuts in emissions while there is still time to avoid the worst, but this is the best that we are going to get for now. So two cheers for the two-degree limit.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“All…voters”)