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Tahrir Square

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Hopeless in Iraq

Four months of mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, and thousands of injuries and arrests – but only two gunshot wounds, both very recent and neither life-threatening.

Five days of mass protests in the streets of Baghdad, and there are already a hundred dead, most by gunfire from the various ‘security’ forces that work for the government. It’s all the more deplorable because Iraq, unlike the vast majority of Arab states, is not actually ruled by military or royal tyrants.

There are free elections in Iraq, and a democratically elected civilian government. The lengthy military occupation after the US invasion in 2003 spawned brutal terrorist movements like Islamic State, but it did give Iraq a full suite of democratic institutions. The trouble is that it also empowered one of the most corrupt political systems in the world.

That’s what the young Iraqi protesters are out in the streets about: not democracy, but corruption. They are very young – most are under 20 – and there are simply no jobs for them. They are condemned to pass their lives in idleness and poverty because they lack the political contacts that might lead to employment.

There have been intermittent anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad and Iraq’s big southern cities since mid-2018, and Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital has been occupied by a few thousand protesters for the past three months. But it was only when they decided to march on the Green Zone on 1 October that the killing started.

The heavily fortified Green Zone was American headquarters during the occupation, and it is now home to most government offices. The protesters were unarmed and non-violent, so the safest thing for the authorities to do would have been to shut the gates until they went home for the evening.

Instead, the military and police fools in charge decided to blockade a bridge leading to the Green Zone. When the protesters tried to cross, they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live bullets.

Only half a dozen young men were killed that day, but they were back in the streets in far larger numbers the next day and the slaughter began in earnest. This is not a revolution. It’s more like a cry of pain and despair by young Iraqis who see no future for themselves, and unfortunately they are right.

Almost every country that depends on a single natural resource (usually oil) for most of its income experiences massive corruption: politics becomes mainly a struggle for control of the money flowing from that resource. But the situation is much worse in Iraq because corruption has become embedded in the structure of all the main political parties.

Each party controls one or more government ministries, but instead of spending that ministry’s share of the national budget on education or infrastructure or whatever its particular responsibility may be, the party creates as many jobs as possible to reward its members and retain their support.

So almost half the adult males in Iraq who have jobs of any sort have government jobs – jobs that often require no work at all, but are much better paid than private-sector jobs.

Iraqi public services are in a desperate state, because the ministries’ money is being spent on salaries for those party members rather than on maintaining the school system or electricity generation or even the water supply.

And of course there are no jobs whatever left for young people now coming into the work-force.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has no idea what to do about the situation, because corruption in Iraq is not a blight on the system. It IS the system, and he will never persuade the political parties to relinquish their control over the state’s revenues. And he can’t really negotiate with the protesters either, because they have no leaders.

It gets worse. The bitter fact is that there’s not enough oil money to give everybody a decent life even if the Iraqi government were to spend it on public services and jobs for all.

Iraq’s current oil production (4.6 million barrels/day) is not dramatically higher than its previous peak in 1979 (3.5 million b/d), before production collapsed during the era of wars with Iran and the United States.

Back then, there were only around 13 million Iraqis, so it was genuinely an oil-rich country. Before Saddam Hussein gained absolute power in 1979 and plunged the country into a generation of war, the Baath Party had even managed to build a pretty good welfare state in Iraq, with a decent education and free medical care for all.

But there are now three times as many Iraqis – 40 million – and the population will double again in the next 30 years. The country still depends on oil for its income, but it is no longer ‘oil-rich’. There is little prospect for a radical improvement in the lives of those angry young men in the streets of Baghdad (and their equally despairing sisters at home).
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 12. (“The heavily…bullets”; and “Iraqi…supply”)

Egypt: Worse Than a Crime

28 July 2013

Egypt: Worse Than a Crime

By Gwynne Dyer

Two massacres committed by the Egyptian army in one week. At least 130 people killed in the streets of Cairo for protesting against the military coup. It is worse than a crime (as the French diplomat Talleyrand remarked when Napoleon ordered a particularly counter-productive execution). It is a MISTAKE.

It is also a crime, of course. The killing has been deliberate and precise: only trained snipers could produce so many victims who have been shot in the head or the heart. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Adly Mansour, the tame president he has installed, tell the kind of lies that generals and politicians always tell when this sort of thing is going on, but the reports of the journalists on the scene leave no room for doubt: this is murder.

But it is, above all, a mistake. When the army fulfilled the demands of the anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square on 3 July by overthrowing the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, after only a year in office, it must have known that his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood would protest in the streets. And it must have had a plan for dealing with those protests. Soldiers always have plans.

The simplest plan would be just to wait the protesters out. The Muslim Brotherhood could put large numbers of people on the streets, but at least in Cairo even larger number of people would go to Tahrir Square and support the coup. Use minimum force, contain the demonstrations by both sides, and wait for people to get bored and go home.

In the meanwhile, push on with the process of rewriting the constitution to remove the Islamic bits inserted last year by Morsi’s party and hold a new referendum to ratify it. By the time fresh presidential and parliamentary elections are held early next year, the Muslim Brotherhood will presumably have found more modern and moderate leaders to replace Morsi – and in any case the secular parties will win the election.

Was this really General Sisi’s scenario for the future when he overthrew Morsi’s government? Perhaps: the army’s moderate behaviour in the first week after the coup could support that hypothesis. But it wouldn’t have taken long for the soldiers to understand that things were unlikely to work according to plan.

The problem was not so much the imprisoned president’s refusal to legitimise his overthrow by cooperating with the military, or the tens of thousands of peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators camped out in the streets. Morsi’s non-cooperation was predictable and so were the pro-Morsi crowds, but his supporters were patient and peaceful. Wait another month or so, and most of them would probably go home.

In this scenario, the turning point would have come when Sisi or his advisers finally realised that the Muslim Brotherhood could wait it out too. Whatever the intervening process, if the Brotherhood was really free to run again in the promised election next year, it might win again. That would be catastrophic for the army’s very privileged position in Egypt – so the Brotherhood had to be excluded from politics.

That is a charitable take on the army’s motives. The likelier explanation, alas, is that Sisi planned to ban the Brotherhood from the start. Democracy be damned: the “deep state”, that permanent collusion between well-fed Egyptian soldiers and bureaucrats and the foreign military and commercial interests who feed them, is making a come-back. And the political idiots on Tahrir Square are cheering it on.

Either way, the army’s political project now requires the massive use of force: the supporters of the Brotherhood must be driven from the streets, by murder if necessary, and its leaders must be criminalised and banned. And other political idiots, in Washington, London and Paris, are going along with that too.

President Barack Obama is uncomfortable with what is happening, but he won’t call it a coup because then he would be obliged to cut off $1.5 billion a year in aid to the Egyptian army. Instead, he calls it a “post-revolution transition”, and promises that the United States will be a “strong partner to the Egyptian people as they shape their path to the future.”

His loyal sidekick William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary (also known as “Tonto”), asks the Egyptian authorities politely to refrain from violence because “now is the time for dialogue, not confrontation.” ‘Fraid not. Now is the time for murder, and foreign democrats are holding the murderer’s coat.

Egypt is the biggest Arab country by far, and so long as the democratic revolution prospered in Egypt you could still say that the “Arab Spring” was changing things for the better, even despite the calamity in Syria. But it’s very hard to see how the Egyptians can find their way back from where they are now.

Even worse, the Egyptian coup is stark proof that political Islam cannot succeed by taking the democratic path. The message it conveys to devout Islamists all over the Arab world is that Osama bin Laden was right: only by violence can their political project succeed. Thanks a bunch, General Sisi.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“The problem…home; and “His loyal…coat”)

Egypt: End Game

20 June 2012

Egypt: End Game

By Gwynne Dyer

“If we find that Scaf (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) stands firm against us as we try to fulfill the fulfill the demands of the revolution,” said Fatema AbouZeid of the Muslim Brotherhood as the final results of Egypt’s presidential election last weekend rolled in, “we will go back to the streets and escalate things peacefully to the highest possible level.”

“Now we have a new factor in Egyptian politics, the Egyptian people themselves…” she continued. “(They) will not accept a return to the old regime in any form, not after so much Egyptian blood was shed to remove it.” Well, maybe.

There’s nothing like an election to make things clear. Now all the cards are on the table in Egypt, and the last round of bidding has begun. The army has opened with a very high bid in the hope of scaring everybody else off, and now the other players have to decide whether to call or fold.

Sometimes, even in long-established democratic states, the players simply fold in order to avoid a destructive constitutional upheaval. That’s what the Democratic Party did when the United States Supreme Court awarded the state of Florida and the presidency to George W. Bush in the disputed election of 2000.

It was an outrageously partisan decision by the 5-4 Republican majority in the Supreme Court, but if the Democrats had rejected it the United States would have faced months or even years of political turmoil. If they had foreseen the devastation that the Bush presidency would cause they might have done otherwise, but at the time their decision seemed wise.

It is possible that the Egyptian “opposition” – a uneasy amalgam of the secular and leftist young who overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak on Tahrir Square sixteen months ago and the Muslim Brotherhood (which initially avoided direct confrontation with the old regime) – will also just fold. After sixteen months of upheaval so many ordinary Egyptians just want “stability” that the army might win a showdown in the streets.

 

The problem is that the Egyptian army has bid much higher than the US Supreme Court ever did – so high that if the other players fold they lose almost everything. This is a brazen bid to revive the old regime minus Mubarak, and restore the armed forces to the position of economic privilege and political control that they have enjoyed, to Egypt’s very great cost, ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952.

On 14 June, just 48 hours before the polls opened for the second round of the presidential election, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court announced that last year’s parliamentary election, in which Islamic parties won almost three-quarters of the seats, was conducted by rules that contravened the constitution.

There was a legitimate question about whether the political parties should have been allowed to run candidates in the seats reserved for independents. No, said the court, all of whose judges were appointed by the old regime. But rather than just ruling that there must be by-elections in those seats, they declared that the whole parliament must be dissolved.

This bizarre decision presumably meant that the 100-person constituent assembly created by the parliament to write Egypt’s new constitution was also dissolved. The army still swears that it will hand power over to the new democratically elected president on 30 June – but he will now take office with no parliament and no constitution to define his powers.

Might there have been some collusion between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Supreme Constitutional Court in this matter? Is the Pope a Catholic?

Last Sunday, only three days after the Court handed down its judgement and just as it was becoming clear that the old regime’s candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, would probably lose the presidential election, the Scaf issued an “interim constitutional declaration”. It effectively gives the military legislative powers, control over the budget, and the right to pick the committee that writes the new constitution.

Since that committee will not report until the end of the year, in the meantime there will be no election for a new parliament. There will be an elected president, but he will not even have authority over the armed forces: the army’s “interim constitution” strips him of that power, and no doubt its tame committee will write it into the new permanent constitution as well.

The Scaf can’t have come up with all this in just 72 hours after the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court on the 14th. There had to be a lot of coordination between the military and the Court beforehand. You could call this a “constitutional coup,” but the more accurate phrase is “military coup.” So what can Egyptians do about it?

They can go back to Tahrir Square, this time student radicals and Muslim Brothers together, and try to force the army out of politics. That will be very dangerous, because this time, unlike February of last year, the generals may actually order the soldiers to clear the square by gunfire. Or the opposition, aware that the mass of the population has no appetite for more confrontation and instability, may just submit and hope for a better day.

If it does that, the Egyptian revolution is dead.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 10. (“Now…maybe”; “It was…wise”; and

“This…powers”)