31 December 2012

Will Cliffmas be a Christmas Present?

Cliffmas is a clever term coined by blogger Atrios (Duncan Black) combining Christmas with Fiscall Cliff narrative.

The basic idea is that there was never any reason for Democrats (and certainly Obama) to negotiate with Republicans to avert the so called Fiscal Cliff.

If you don't remember what this entailed, basically Bush tax cuts will expire tonight at midnight and taxes will go up on most Americans. We are talking a very modest increase, as the rates will revert back to what they were under Clinton. Estate taxes and capital gains taxes will be significantly higher though (which is why most large corporations distributed their dividends in December this year).

Along with tax increases there will be substantial sending cuts, most notably on the defense budget. Some long term unemployment benefits will be cut and payroll tax holiday will be over.

The media present this as a catastrophe but I am not sure why it has to be. They claim that with higher taxes consumer spending will slow down and this could lead back to a new recession.

What Cliffmas means, instead of negotiating for a modest rate increase for the highest revenue bracket, Obama would wait for the expiration of Bush cuts. Once the taxes are much higher, companies and 1 percenters would put enough pressure on Republicans to make a deal. If not, Obama could simply pass a new tax cut bill that covers the middle classes.

I understand that Obama has been threatening to do just that, except that he has also been making new offers like moving the tax bracket from $250,000 to $450,000. It is now being reported that the White House is convinced they will have no leverage after January and Obama has already blurted out on Sunday that the offers he made to Boehner would make many Democrats mad at him. Needless to add, Boehner rejected those offers.

I hope that Obama calls the GOP's bluff and let the Fiscal Cliff roll.

But I am almost certain that he will make a last minute deal and will give away the house, as I predicted.

In any case, Happy Cliffmas to everyone.

I hope 2013 will be a better year.

29 December 2012

Maybe There is Something to the Mayan Prophecy

I found out about the Mayan Prophecy quite late. It was already mid-December when I realized that hordes of "preppers" were getting ready to survive the end of the world.

I have to admit that I vaguely knew about a Mayan Prophecy but I didn't realize that the clearly marked Mayan Calendar you see below contained a definite prediction that on 21 December 2012 the world would cease to exist.

I assumed that the general idea must be similar to Christian Millennialism which predicts the end of an era and the start of a golden age where Christ would reign for a thousand years before the Day of Final Judgment

It turns out that the whole thing was some kind of misunderstanding and the Calendar was indeed predicting about the end of an era and the start of a new age.
Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Year of the Mayan Prophecy calls 21/12/12 the "hinge point" of the emergence of a new, more enlightened age - not an ending point for all civilisation.
"It is quite clear that the Mayan system envisages a new cycle of the calendar beginning on the 22 December 2012," says Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods. 
What we have here is an extension of the basic Winter Solstice symbolism, from darkness to light, this time to herald a more enlightened epoch.

As you can guess, I don't believe in prophecies of any kind. But, I kind of liked the idea that we might be entering a new and more humane period in our collective history. In fact, I ended my most recent post with the optimistic belief that the Zeitgeist has shifted towards a nicer and warmer perspective and young people do not seem to share the greedy and self-centered ideology of their parents.

So, this being my end of year post, I decided to go with the Mayan flow and enumerate all the signs that seem to indicate that we might be leaving the Gordon Gekko years behind and entering a better era.

A New Age?

I would like to claim that 2012 was the year the forces that dominate the economic and political realms and control the media narrative realized for the first time that the people whose choices and voices they pretend to reflect were a lot more liberal, tolerant and progressive than they have been claiming.

2012 is also the year, reality entered the conservative bubble in a way to make denials hard to maintain.

19 December 2012

Guns and American Conservatives

After the Connecticut massacre where 20 children and 6 adults lost their lives a teary President Obama announced that something had to be done.

Do you believe anything will be done?

In case you are not sure, let me refresh your memory.

The last time something was done, it was Jim Brady, Ronald Reagan's Press Secretary, who succeeded in pushing legislation (with St Ronnie's backing) that established a waiting period before gun purchases and some background checking. That was it. Since 1994, no gun legislation was introduced and Congress refused even to consider limits on automatic assault weapons or specialized ammunitions.

In the intervening years, several high school and college shootings led to the death of hundreds of young people.

A Congresswoman was shot in the head and 6 people around her died and 11 seriously wounded.

A deranged person wearing a mask opened fire during a movie screening, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.

Reactions to all of these incidents? Most commentators said something along the lines of, (a) nobody could have predicted such violent acts, (b) guns don't kill people, people kill people and (c) Americans needed to get more guns to defend themselves against crazy people.

According to some of these conservative voices if school kids were armed in these instances, they could have defended themselves.  Since then, many states are considering allowing guns on campuses. I am not kidding. Feel free to check out www.armedcampuses.org for statistics.

So, the basic answer to mass killings with guns has been more guns, not less.

I never understood why the gun industry and its lobbying arm the National Rifle Association (NRA) were so important, so powerful and so successful in stifling discussion. After all, this is just a $11 billion a year industry.  To put it in perspective, at the height of the banking bubble, Goldman Sachs alumnus John Paulson and a couple of his colleagues made more than that in bonuses in a single year (2007). Surely, this is not an economically significant sector.

But the question remains that, if cigarette manufacturers could be taken down, if mighty bank CEOs can be grilled in Congress or if defense contractors could be criticized, how is it that such a relatively small sector could remain untouchable?

The answer is that a disproportionate number of Americans see guns as an extension of their belief system.

Conservative Mind Set: Fear and Martyrdom

After the Connecticut incident, BBC's Mark Mardell wrote that we do not understand the historic and emotional bond the Americans have with their guns. I am sure there are gun nuts for whom this is a valid observation. But I think guns are important to a large number of Americans for ideological reasons. These are people who share the values and ideas of the modern conservative movement. As such, this group includes -besides conservatives- many independents and some democrats as well.

07 December 2012

Khaled Meshaal: The Prodigal Son Returns

If you belong to my tiny but loyal and erudite readership, you will remember that, back in February, I posted a piece entitled "What is Happening with Hamas" to highlight the serious rift that emerged between Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister in Gaza and Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas in exile.

In that post, I quoted Meshaal making rather conciliatory statements about Israel and the two-state solution. He even insinuated that he would take part in a national unity government led by Abbas.
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Meshaal "quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah" and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel's creation in 1948. 
He is also ready to suspend the military jihad against Israel and go along with Abbas's idea of "popular resistance" through non-violent mass protests, Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to "armed resistance." 
Analysts speculate that Meshaal's goal may be to end the isolation of his movement and make it an essential partner in Middle East negotiations, one that Israel and the West can no longer afford to ostracize as a terrorist group.
Haniyeh, on the other hand, was firmly against these possibilities.

I concluded that,
Meshaal's recent moves, i.e. announcing his departure, leaving Syria and getting close to Jordan and Qatar make sense if he is getting ready to participate in a peace agreement with Israel. 
That means that Meshaal is anticipating that such a deal is more or less imminent. This is a radical U-turn for an organization that wants to eradicate any trace of Israel from the region using armed struggle. Suddenly, they are talking about 1967 borders and peaceful popular resistance. 
It also means that he realizes that Syria is no longer able to provide cover for Hamas, as it is about to experience a radical regime change and maybe a prolonged civil war. 
It further means that Meshaal does no longer value Hamas' alliance with Iran and is trying to find new sponsors and protectors in the region. That indicates that he believes Iran's ascendancy peaked and regardless of the outcome of its confrontation with the US, Iran will have to accept a secondary power position behind others like Turkey.

03 December 2012

Why the Turkish Model Will Not Work in Egypt

You probably know that Egypt's Islamist president Muhammad Morsi (BBC adopted new spelling) has recently given himself sweeping powers with a simple decree. Although he claimed that he was not seeking unchecked powers for himself, his move triggered a wave of protest in -where else?- the Tahrir Square.

He tried to contain this situation by acknowledging that these new powers would become invalid once the draft constitution is ratified in a referendum. And he rushed the constituent assembly (dominated by Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists) to finish the text and get it ready for a referendum. They complied and had a new draft the following day. The new draft was boycotted by women, secular and Christian members of the assembly.

Since Morsi's new powers prevented Supreme Court judges from ruling on the constitutionality of the constituent assembly they retaliated by refusing to oversee the referendum that will take place in two weeks time.

In other words, in the span of two weeks, Morsi went from a savvy statesman, who brokered a peace deal in Gaza, to a clumsy dictator wannabe pushing an authoritarian Islamist agenda.

The first part earned him a Time Magazine cover as "The Most Important Man in the Middle East."

Ironically, while this issue of Time was still in circulation Morsi became an object of scorn and ridicule and people began calling for his resignation.

This got me thinking.

From the beginning of the Arab Spring, the new Islamist movements in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco professed a desire to emulate what they called the Turkish model. There are four political parties called either Justice and Development Party (as the Turkish AKP) or (in the case of Egypt) Justice and Freedom Party.

The question that springs to mind, is it enough to copy the program of a party and emulate their agenda to duplicate their success in a different setting? Or to put it more bluntly, is the Turkish model applicable to Egypt?

My answer is that there are several elements that set the Turkish model apart and without those, any effort to use it as a blueprint is likely to fail.

27 November 2012

The Struggle for the French Right: UMP

Right after the last French elections, I had a chat with a Parisian friend of mine. He predicted that Marine Le Pen's far right, ultra-nationalistic Front National was going to become the second party (after the Socialists) in the next few years.

At the time, his observation surprised me. But it also struck me as plausible. After all, Marine Le Pen had just obtained a credible percentage of the vote during the first round of Presidential elections. More importantly, I knew that the upcoming winds of austerity and the accompanying economic hardship would constitute a fertile ground for right wing forces.

You could go back to Weimar Republic and see the rise of that Austrian painter with a penchant for tooth brush mustaches. Austerity, check, high unemployment, check, middle classes losing ground, check and of course a well-packaged "other" to be blamed for everything, check.

(Actually, you don't even have to go back that far. You can simply study what happened after Structural Adjustment Policies were imposed in a country, in recent decades. In almost all cases, you will see either a coup d'etat or an authoritarian conservative government coming to power. But the imagery of the Austrian painter is more evocative.)

However, last week's events surrounding the leadership debate for UMP seem to suggest that the French case might not be as straightforward.

20 November 2012

Random Thoughts About the US Elections

After important elections, it is customary to offer incredibly boring platitudes, such as commenting on the nature of the mandate given to the political elite by the people.

After the US elections I read depressingly inane commentary suggesting that the elections showed that the Americans wanted a divided Congress. And they gave both parties a mandate to solve the looming fiscal crisis.

I don't think it is possible to take the final results and extrapolate them into them some global message as if they were willed by a teleological planetary intelligence. People vote for all kinds of reasons and they rarely have some big picture in mind.

My thoughts on the subject are much more pedestrian but at least they are based on tangible facts.

The Republican Party is on a Sliding Path Towards Minority Status

If you read Rick Perlstein's Nixonland or Thomas Schaller's "Whistling Past Dixie" you might know that the GOP was very successful in winning elections by polarizing the electorate. The "other" could be African Americans, gays, women, Hispanics and of course Muslims, depending on the electoral cycles.

But all good things must come to an end: these last elections signaled the fact that their strategy hit a demographic wall. As Lindsay Graham put it in a moment of candor “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

16 November 2012

Dangerous Times in the Middle East

I have been meaning to write a post about the dangerous nexus in the Middle East but I never got around doing it. You could say that recent events forced my hand.

If you are aware of this blog, chances are you know that my working hypothesis is that a Palestinian and Kurdish statehood is a necessity to bring stability to the Middle East. Stability is needed because more than 70 percent of world's oil and gas originates and transported through this region. And whoever controls the distribution of this flow will be in a very good position vis-a vis rising super powers like China and India. Accordingly, I maintain that to achieve these dual goals of stability and control, the US has been pressuring Israel and Turkey to negotiate in earnest with Palestinians and Kurds.

As I noted in the early days of this blog, having a working hypothesis is no guarantee that things will work out according to plan. People of that region rarely act as rational agents and tend to go off script even when it is not in their interest to do so.

Case in point are the recent actions of Netanyahu and Erdogan in their respective countries.

Netanyahu did not have to call early elections as he had a nice majority in Knesset with Kadima as his coalition partner. By linking Likud's fate to Lieberman's Ysrael Beiteinu he more or less guaranteed a much smaller majority after the January elections.  In fact, with Ehud Olmert exonerated and back in politics Kadima may surprise people and could make a decent come back.

Instead of doing all this, Netanyahu could have negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas and sign a peace deal before the regularly scheduled elections in October 2013.  Hamas was weakened considerably because of its internal divisions and Mahmoud Abbas was making very conciliatory noises about Palestinians right to return.

06 November 2012

Changes in Saudi Arabia

Something is happening in Saudi Arabia.

It is barely perceptible but it is definitely there.

In July, I suggested that King Abdullah was introducing a series of cautious reforms in a bid to weaken the grip of the House of Wahhabi. These included the (largely symbolic) right to vote for women and the participation of female athletes to London Olympics. When Nayef, the Minister of Interior and Crown Prince died in June, there was no one left to oppose Abdullah's push for more reforms.

Even before the untimely demise of Nayef, in January, Abdullah replaced the head of the "Mutawa" or the "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" also known as the religious police corps of Saudi Arabia. These are the Salafist officers who did not allow 15 girls to leave a burning school because they were not wearing proper Islamic dresses and let them burn alive.

The new chief, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheik, was a very unusual choice in that he believed that the Mutawa had too much power.
The new chief of the Mutawa
(Credit Al Arabiya)
Two weeks into the job, Mr Sheikh banned volunteers from serving in the force, and in April warned that those found to have harassed people would be punished. 
He has publicly dressed down officers deemed to have applied themselves overzealously to their duties.
Once Nayef was out of the way, Sheik could move much more decisively:
Now Mr Sheikh has announced a new raft of measures to curb their powers.

Arrests, interrogations, house raids and searches will now be carried out by other police or judicial bodies, he told al-Hayat.

Elsewhere he promised his officers would be forced to adhere to a new code of practice.

He said he would target the practice of preventing women unaccompanied by family from entering shopping centres.
This last item was both a major preoccupation for the Mutawa and a source of significant resentment. Hence, his reforms were received warmly by the general public (but not so much by the Salafists).

A couple of weeks ago, he did the unthinkable and announced that the Mutawa was going to hire female officers. When you consider that women cannot drive by themselves in Saudi Arabia, giving them such a responsibility is mind boggling.

I was sure that Sheik was going to lose his job quickly as the Salafist groups and religious establishment would put a lot of pressure on the King to get rid of him.

Then a third thing happened.

03 November 2012

The US Elections: The Contrarian Perspective

I find the pre-election focus on polls rather boring.

In my contrarian universe, voting behavior is usually guided, manipulated and shaped by societal forces. Forces that can bring a specific narrative to the forefront, change the agenda, modify and enforce talking points. I pay attention to them.

I am not talking about people like Koch brothers and their crass attempt to influence the political preferences of their employees by threatening them with mass layoffs in case Obama wins. There are always a few cranky billionaires like Sheldon Adelson who will bankroll Newt Gingrinch or replenish the coffers of Karl Rove's Super P.A.C.

I am talking about the US business classes who managed to turn the American Dream into a massive scheme of income redistribution. You know, the famed 1 percent.

When people refer to 1 percent they don't realize the enormity of the disparity: do you know that the net worth of just 6 members of the Walmart family is larger than the entire bottom 30 percent of the US population? (Apparently, if you take the entire family that figure goes to 40 percent).

Can you say Banana Republic?

Warren Buffet famously said that "there has been class warfare waged and my class has won."

In my humble opinion, it is this class that wants to see Barack Obama back for a second term. And this is not idle contrarian speculation on my part. It is a rational choice as they have excellent reasons to want him win.

The First Obama Presidency: Income Redistribution Redux

You may be vaguely aware that, thus far, the Obama presidency was a resounding economic success for that  lovely class of 1 percent, as it solidified all the trends that began four decades ago.

01 November 2012

The US Elections: The Standard Perspective

If you have been following the US presidential race, you know that there has been breathless commentary about the statistical dead-heat that makes it impossible to predict who the winner is.

Even Sandy could not stop this non-stop discussion of countless opinion polls.

Predictably, Fox News predicts a Romney win, as does the right leaning Real Clear Politics. Gallup is also convinced of a Romney win.

The rest of the pollsters seem to favor Obama.

Nate Silver gives Obama 3 to 1 odds or anywhere from 70 to 79 percent change of winning. So does Sam Wang of Princeton Election Consortium. Ditto for Votamatic, which gives Obama 332 electoral college votes.

Interestingly, the majority of Americans seem to agree with the latter group of pollsters. According to Gallup 54 percent of Americans believe that he will get his second term and only 34 percent predict that Mitt Romney will win.

I am not a big believer in polls. They are surprisingly crude tools with very few safeguards against people making false statements.

But from a purely electoral math point of view here is my take.

27 October 2012

Contrarian Images from the Middle East II: Hamas Aligned with Israel?

Hamas is an interesting organization. It is involved in charity, governance and terrorism. Not necessarily in that order.

Perhaps, most surprisingly, it owes its existence and predominant position largely to Israel.
"Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel's creation," says Mr. Cohen, a Tunisian-born Jew who worked in Gaza for more than two decades. Responsible for religious affairs in the region until 1994, Mr. Cohen watched the Islamist movement take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals and then morph into what is today Hamas, a militant group that is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Instead of trying to curb Gaza's Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat's Fatah. Israel cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas.
It was a serious miscalculation on Israel's part.

Eventually, Hamas came to power in Gaza and purged all Fatah elements from the new administration. It is now being supported by Syria and Iran, two implacable foes of Israel. It has links to Hezbollah. And it has been firing home-made rockets to Israel. In short, it is a major thorn on Israel's side.

But ever since the Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh rivalry surfaced, Hamas has been doing unexpected things. Last year, after some obscure Jihadist group kidnapped and beheaded an Italian peace activist Hamas began a serious crackdown on Salafists. It kept raiding their headquarters, arresting them, confiscating their arms and even convicted them of murder.

26 October 2012

Contrarian Images from the Middle East I: Selling Gold to Iran

When you think that you finally have a good idea about the state of affairs in the Middle East, something comes along to show you that things are really not what they seem and the simplistic images we get from corporate media hide a very complicated reality.

This is my first example.

Every Middle East expert claims that Turkey and Iran are at each other's throat over their respective regional power status.

You already know the story.

Last year, Turkey allowed the US install a missile shield and everyone knows that it was directed towards Iran.

Turkey is supporting Northern Iraq in its effort to remain autonomous and is actively undermining the authority of al-Maliki government (who is a protege of Iran). They even provided safe haven to Tariq Hashemi the former Iraqi VP who was sentenced to death in absentia.

For its part, Iran has been assisting Assad in Syria to prevent Turkey to start a regime change operation. Also, it has been rumored that Tehran has finally gave the green light to PKK to operate from within its territory.

Moreover, almost weekly a religious leader in Iran chastises Turkey for being the tool of Western interests.

Yet, surprising, behind this fa├žade of animosity, an interesting trade relationship has been flourishing.

Selling Gold to the Ayatollahs

Turkey continues to buy oil and gas from Iran. They have an agreement that Iran will supply 10 million cubic meters of gas on a daily basis for the next 25 years. There is even a pipeline project that will carry Iranian gas to Europe via Turkey.

25 October 2012

Dehumanizing Otherness

Of all the contrarian things I wrote in this humble soapbox, the most controversial item turned out to be my moralistic post about that infamous anti-Muhammad movie trailer.

I got a lot of private feedback. Many were positive. Some, not so much.

A French friend of mine told me that he was surprised by my approach. He felt that I defended a bunch of people who routinely do horrible things, like perpetrating acts of terrorism, denigrating women and displaying a general hatred for everything "we" stood for. He said that "they" were not like "us" and can never be. That was because their beliefs, traditions and behavior patterns were just simply too different.

He also added that given the fairly strident anti-religious views I regularly express in my daily life, he was surprised that I would defend a bunch of fundamentalists and their dubious religion.

It got me thinking.

My first thought was, I should not be friends with this guy.

But then I realized that a majority of my European friends probably thinks like him, he was the one with enough guts to express these views.

So I thought I should explain to him (publicly) a couple of things, starting with the minor point that my views are correctly called anti-clerical and not anti-religion.

And there is a reason for that.

Being Anti-clerical vs anti-religion

As we know, all religious texts are believed to be messages from a Deity. All three big religions make this claim. (Muslims more so than the others because they believe that the Koran's text is identical to the version received by the Prophet and remains unmodified. In fact, this is the trump card of fundamentalists, as they can claim that the text should be applied down to its last detail because it is the clearest and purest voice of God)

When I have to debate religion -and believe me I try to avoid it whenever I can- I never express doubts about the existence of God or the fact that these messages belong to a Deity. I am not Richard Dawkins. I take these notions as a given since my interlocutors consider them as axioms. What I believe is immaterial in that conversation.

I simply explain to them that even messages from God are received and transmitted with human languages. Human languages are by definition social and historical constructs and their meaning structure is entirely dependent on the priorities, perceptions and prejudices of that historical period and society. The recipient of that message cannot help but hear what he heard through the filters of that language.

In short, there can be no fixed supra-historical meaning.

What is expressed in 5th century Europe or 7th century Middle East has to make sense in that period and in that society. For instance, God could not have mentioned in either context that the world is round. If he did, no one could have understood, verbalize and communicate that idea.

Consequently, all texts, including the ones sent by God, are already interpreted and therefore open to further interpretation.

It is somewhat lame to point out that if there was a single interpretation we would not have Catholics, Protestants, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists or Mormon's or Jehovah's Witnesses.

Or Sunni Islam and within it, Hanafi, Sahfi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, Zahiri schools of thought. Or Shia Islam and within it Ismaili, Alawite, Alevi, Zaidiyyah sects. Or Sufism and within it, Bektashi, Naqshbandi, Uwaiysi, Qadiri, Nimatullahi, Mouride orders.

Single text, many, many interpretations.

The question is who makes and enforces these interpretations. As we know from the history of all religions, it is always a group of men who takes it upon themselves to establish their version of the meaning of any Holy Text.

This is why you can discuss any holy text without accepting the false premise that you are discussing the words of God. You are discussing the meaning attributed to the words of God by flesh and blood human beings. God's meaning remains inaccessible. We only have access to what people heard through their social and historical linguistic constructs.

That is why I am radically anti-clerical and deeply suspicious of these men and their interpretations. Their interpretation and their effort to enforce them is a social issue. And their views are no more sacred to me than, say, the theory of evolution.

Consequently, you cannot tell me that the precepts of your faith are superior to my views and I need to accept and obey them because they were dictated by God.

They were received, understood, expressed and communicated by men. What we have is what they heard not what God said.

But I would never question your personal beliefs and personal interpretation of the words of a Deity. That is a private matter.

Using religion for dehumanizing otherness

The second thing I wanted to explain to my friend was that what I was doing was not to defend a religion or its followers. I am not a believer. I am the worst kind of person for a believer because I refuse to consider the question whether there is a God. I am not an agnostic and I am not an atheist.

I have no idea and I am really not interested in finding out one way or the other.

What I was doing was to highlight the rapidly escalating trend towards creating a "dehumanized other" within a general "clash of civilization" context.

What I wrote was an effort to point to the dangers of that process. Because he have seen it before. And it is not pretty.

Do you know what dehumanizing otherness is?

Let me explain with the most extreme example in human history.

In his book, A Social History of the Third Reich, Richard Grunberger tells the story of a four year old Jewish girl who wanted to have cherries but was refused by a Berlin shopkeeper because the Jewish food ration did not include fruits. The girl cried her eyes out. Did I mention she was four years old?

Picture yourself in the grocer's place. Would you not have given her a couple of cherries, especially since (during the anecdote) there was no one else in the store? But he simply didn't (p.579-80). And proudly and factually related the story. Because in his eyes, this was not a kid. She was a lesser being, an alien. She was part of a less than human group of others (untermensch).

You might think that this was a German thing, you know, something Goebbels' propaganda machine created.

Not true.

This July, we had the 70th anniversary of the infamous Vel' d'Hiv round up in France. Vel' d'Hiv is an abbreviation of Velodrome d'Hiver in Drancy, France. On 16 and 17 July 1942, the French police gathered 13,152 Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. Of these 8,160 were locked away in that bicycle arena.  1,129 men, 2,916 women and 4,115 children. The youngest 3,000 kids were brutally separated from their parents and sent first to the camps.

Credit: Archive CDJC-Memorial de la Shoah
But they spent a few nights in the Vel' d'Hiv crying and screaming, unable to comprehend what happened to them and where their parents were. Some as young as two. And no one around them felt anything. No one was moved enough to help or to alleviate their suffering.

This summer, there was an exhibition about them entitled C'etaient des enfants and I meant to go. But I knew I wouldn't be able to see more than a couple of pictures before I felt suicidal for being part of the same species as those people who stood emotionless around these helpless kids.

That's dehumanizing otherness.

Let me add that, under normal circumstances, I would not have used these examples, as I consider the Holocaust the biggest crime of all times and I don't like it when people use it as an analogy for anything. Moreover, I consider the Jews to be the most persecuted group in human history.

There are two reasons why I did it.

One is an anecdote. The year was 1980. For a series of reasons too long to explain here, I found myself in Berlin, inside the Berlin Olympic Stadium, the one in which Jesse Owens flip the bird to Hitler in 1936. My companion was a German journalist. I asked him about the Holocaust and I simply asked why.

I never forgot his answer. He said that he cannot answer that question because any answer would be a partial justification. He said that even statements along the lines of "people felt Jews were like this or that" would give a modicum of acceptability to what had taken place and he was adamant to never allow that.

I learned from him that trying to explain a hatred of difference is justifying the reactions to otherness. Every time I hear a friend tell me that Muslims are like this or that, I think of that German journalist.

The second reason is the fact that the analogy came to me through Adam Gopnik, a writer I admire immensely. I used to give his books to friends as a random act of kindness. He happens to be Jewish and he apparently lives in Paris as well. This summer he wrote a short essay for the BBC in which he said:
Hatred of difference - notice I carefully did not say racial hatred, or religious hatred. Hitler hated Jews because of their religion, and because of their race, but he hated them above all because of their otherness.

When I read well-intentioned people talking about the impossibility of assimilating Muslims in my adopted country of France, for instance, I become frightened when I see that they are usually entirely unaware that they are repeating - often idea for idea and sometimes word for word - the themes of the anti-Semitic polemics that set off the Dreyfus affair a century ago. For those writers, too, believed not that Jews were eternally evil, but that Judaism was just too different, too foreign to France, and tied to violence against the nation and its heritage.
Like Adam Gopnik, I see the hatred and fear in people's eyes when they glance at Muslims. You know, a Muslim couple with the woman covered up and subservient. I see how they remain unmoved when they notice their children. I heard more than once the term coach-roaches.

I detest the idea of a burqa and I am happy to have a discussion with any Muslim person about it. I can easily show how flimsy the religious justification is for that garment and how much of it comes from the patriarchal prejudices of those men who are in charge of interpretation.

But I detest even more the idea of a woman becoming an object of fear and hatred, or worse, becoming invisible. When a Brooklyn woman went undercover to prove her son's innocence, she wore a burqa to spy on people. She said that with a burqa people acted like she did not exist. She was completely invisible.

Once again, I am not suggesting that Muslims are as thoroughly dehumanized as the Jews in the 19th and 20th century Europe. No one can be.

But the process seems to be underway and with the help of social media and Internet, right wing fear groups are getting more effective and successful with each passing day.

So what I said to my French friend that he should heed my warning. Unless Europeans find a way to communicate with Muslims without relegating them to a dehumanized other status, they could end up repeating past mistakes.

And insisting on freedom of expression to defend a silly movie trailer designed to offend them was not the way to transcend otherness.

That was my point and I stand by it.

23 October 2012

Interesting Survey on Syria

The Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a Turkish think tank, has just published the results of an opinion poll on Syria (in pdf format and in English). They surveyed a sample of 1500 people in 17 Turkish cities.

It appears that 51% of Turks are opposed to a military intervention.

People supporting the opposition parties favored the impartiality option in even higher numbers: 60% of the sympathizers of the social democratic CHP and the ultra-nationalistic MHP ticked that box. With the supporters of the pro-Kurdish BDP impartiality option went even higher to 83%.

14 October 2012

Do You Know Why Your iPhone 5 Is Not Here Yet?

A year ago this week, I linked to a report that said that the labor cost to Apple of each iPhone was roughly $6.  Mind you, that's manufacturing cost, not what workers get paid. It seems that sum moved up to $8 with the new iPhone 5.

Overall, when you add everything, each iPhone costs Apple a little over $200. Since they sell the cheapest unsubsidized model for $649 (or €680 in Europe), you can guess their margin.

Recently, a Chinese journalist went undercover to work at Foxconn, the company that manufactures iPhones to check out how the living and working conditions were. You might have heard of Foxconn through a series of suicides that took place in the last three years.

The journalist worked for ten days at Foxconn. Getting hired was easy. All he needed was his citizenship card and he had to answer a series of health questions. Most of these were centered around his mental stability (for obvious reasons). After a short bus trip he was shown to the dorm. This is how he described it:
The first night sleeping at Foxconn dormitory is a nightmare. The whole dormitory smells like garbage when I walked in. It’s a mixed of overnight garbage smell plus dirty sweat and foam smell. Outside every room was fully piled up with uncleared trash. When I opened my wardrobe, lots of cockroaches crawl out from inside and the bedsheets that are being distributed to every new workers are full of dirts and ashes. 

07 October 2012

Syria and Turkey: Prelude to an Intervention?

It is always tricky to comment about evolving events in the Middle East. Murky doesn't even begin to qualify the current state of affairs.

What We Know So Far

A few days ago, a stray mortar landed in a border town in Turkey and killed five people, including a mother and her three children. Turkish troops retaliated almost immediately and fired at military positions inside Syria. There are some unconfirmed reports that up to 48 people died as a result and most of them were Syrian soldiers.

Turkey also called an emergency meeting of NATO and sent a letter to UN Security Council demanding unspecified actions against Damascus. As a final touch, the Turkish government convened an emergency session of Parliament and passed a bill that authorizes military action within Syria.

If you add to this picture, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been going around and jovially advocating safe zones inside Syria, you might assume that this is the beginning of a Turkish military intervention.

Turkish media outlets are convinced that this is the beginning of the end and that Turkey is getting ready to move in.

A Military Intervention in Syria?

As the resident contrarian, I continue to doubt this eventuality.

It is not that I have access to inside information. I just go by Occam's Razor.

To predict a military intervention requires a very convoluted logic, and its proponents typically refer to shadowy influences (usually an Israeli -read Jewish- conspiracy pushed by the US) without explaining what this would achieve.

Military action, even a limited one, would almost certainly escalate rapidly and lead to a protracted civil war. It would give jihadists and Sunni fundamentalists a very prominent role in post-Assad Syria. That civil war could engulf Lebanon and possibly even Jordan. It would certainly put Israel's security in jeopardy. And above all, there is absolutely nothing in it for Turkey.

Until someone can show me how such a move would be beneficial to some regional or international actors, I will maintain my contrarian position.

However, I can see that something significant is taking place and it looks like it will affect the endgame in Syria. I am not exactly sure what this is but there are a few interesting indications that encourage educated guesses.

03 October 2012

A Monument in Ottawa

A good friend of mine and a loyal reader of this humble soap box, alerted me to the unveiling of a monument in Ottawa in honor of a slain Turkish diplomat.

I found this odd, to say the least. Turkey has always been a remote and distant entity for Canada. The only historic ties between them would be the sympathy felt in Canada for the Commonwealth Anzac Day casualties suffered at the hands of the Ottoman battalions defending Gallipoli.

That and a membership they share in NATO.

Their bilateral trade was tiny for a long time and only in recent years it nudged up (it sounds like a lot but the volume in question represents less than 1% of their foreign trade).

In 2006, Harper government recognized the Armenian genocide and relations have been frosty ever since.

Credit Fred Chartrand-The Canadian press
Suddenly, the same conservative government decided to befriend the Islamist government of Turkey by honoring a slain Turkish diplomat.

I was aghast.

The monument was designed and produced in Turkey and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu came for its unveiling.

According to the Globe and Mail the reason for that radical change was this:
An internal foreign policy review carried out last year for Mr. Baird identified Turkey has a key player in the world, and a country that Canada should be focused on.
I have to say that I feel somewhat conflicted that my hypothesis about the significance of Turkey as a regional power and a model for Islamist governments might be shared by the illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird of the Harper government.

The sad part is that I would feel equally conflicted if I found out that the Erdogan government (and its illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglu) shared my views.

There are times it is hard to be a contrarian.

The Anti-Muhammad Movie: Why and Who Benefits From It?

When I heard about the riots following the anti-Muhammad movie trailer, my first reaction was curiosity.

Unlike most people who comments about such issues, I first watched the movie trailer. It was not what I expected. The best word to describe it is comical. The camera was shaky, the set was non existent, the sandy deserts were provided by an incredibly amateurish After Effect background plug-in and the acting was terrible. Moreover, all the anti-Muhammad lines were dubbed in either as a voice over or by someone whose voice was very different from the lead actor. They were unmistakably added on. Clearly, this was not a professional production. In fact, most high school students with a Mac laptop could produce a better clip that this.

My initial curiosity was then replaced with a series of questions: why would someone produce such a clearly silly movie? Since the movie was obviously not an end onto itself what were the goals of its producers?

I also wondered how people who never touched a computer in their lives, let alone watch that trailer on You Tube, were informed of its existence? And why they felt so much rage and outrage?

My final question was: who benefited the most from the reaction to the movie?

The Anti-Muhammad Movie: The Debate

If you are aware of the existence this humble soapbox you know that I am not in the morality business. My usual focus is to try to explain something, not to pass judgement.

Today, I will make a rare exception and discuss both sides of an issue, namely the anti-Muhammad movie and the ensuing riots. First, let me focus on the debate and the morality argument behind it. In a separate post I will discuss who benefited from these incidents.

Sanctity of Freedom of Expression vs Sanctity of Religious Beliefs?

I have been following the debate around the 14-minute trailer of that silly movie with growing incredulity. More than anything else, I have been puzzled by the central argument that was proposed to frame the debate, namely the sanctity of the freedom of expression vs the sanctity of religious beliefs.

I am not a believer and I am a strong supporter of the freedom of expression. In fact, I am an extremist in that regard: I believe that all speech, no matter how odious, should be protected. And I have a profound dislike for any fundamentalist belief systems, religious or not.

So this line of argumentation should speak to me. But it didn't. Because I realized quickly that it was a disingenuous framework designed to predetermine the outcome of the debate and in the process, to solicit the support of people like me.

10 September 2012

Louis Vuitton, a Belgian Brand?

I am being facetious, of course.

But when it became known that Bernard Arnault, the owner of LVMH and the richest man in France with a fortune of 41 billion euros, applied for Belgian citizenship the French media went crazy.

The headline used by Liberation "Casse-toi riche con" is a reference to a derogatory phrase Sarkozy uttered (the meaning in English is here) while responding to a protester.

The French media predicted that it was because of the silly 75 percent tax rate promised by Fran├žois Hollande for people who earn more than a million euros a year.

I doubt that it was the case, as he would not be able to divest himself of his holdings in France. Moreover, the 75 percent tax rate is likely to be applied to salaried income (no one knows what the tax entails yet). In France, for 90 percent of the population, salaried income represents 80 percent of their revenue. Whereas for the super rich, such income is less than 20 percent of their annual revenue.
Credit Reuters

In other words, Arnault's 41 billion euros fortune is not under a socialist threat.  

I suspect it was partly a stunt to bring this silly tax to the agenda. Partly, as his press people noted, he has investment plans in Belgium, where he has had residency permit for more than ten years.

Incidentally, the reason I call it a silly tax is the fact that in the best case scenario this tax will only bring €250 million to the French treasury. But symbolically, it is used to paint Hollande like a traditional tax-and-spend socialist.

For my way of thinking, €250 million is not worth the opportunity it gives to people like Arnault to pull stunts like these.

Soros on Eurozone: Inflation or Bust

It is not everyday that you discover that George Soros is making the same argument as you.  And on something as complex as the Eurozone crisis.
Credit Bloomberg

According to the BBC, Soros will give a speech today in Germany and he will recommend that Eurozone countries should have a new growth target of 5 percent. In an article published two days ago in the New York Times Review of Books he contends that to do this, they should give up the austerity idea (what I called, after Krugman, internal devaluation) and should accept a higher inflation rate.

Since Germany is the biggest stumbling bloc in that respect, apparently, Soros is planning to suggest hat Germany should either accept this solution or exit the Euro. Or as he puts it,
In my judgment the best course of action is to persuade Germany to choose between becoming a more benevolent hegemon, or leading nation, or leaving the euro. In other words, Germany must lead or leave.
Indeed, Europe has a German problem.

Incidentally, Soros believes, as I do, that a German (or Finnish, as predicted by Roubini) exit would be less problematical than a Greek exit, as this latter would almost certainly trigger a domino effect.

It would be interesting to see if anyone would pay attention to Soros' recommendations. In the past, many institutions paid a heavy price for ignoring him. He has an exceptionally sharp understanding of major trends (he sensed the 2008 crisis and took control of his Quantum fund just in time to post a series of very high returns when everyone else was losing substantial sums) and if I were Merkel, I would listen to him carefully.

08 September 2012

Big Brother Is Watching

Last, week a group known as AntiSec posted one million UDID or Unique Device Identifiers used by Apple to put together each IOS device (iPhone, iPad or iPods) and its owner's private data.
Credit wikipedia

Basically, we are talking about my iPhone ID along with my address, my numbers, applications I downloaded and a bunch of other personal information.

AntiSec stands for Operation Anti Security and refers to a number of hactivist attacks by members of a group known as LulzSec (Lulz Security). They are associated with the hacker group Anonymous. You might have seen them on TV news wearing Guy Fawkes masks supporting Occupy Wall Street movement.

They hackers released a long statement (worth reading if you want to understand their motivations) to explain that the information came from the laptop of an FBI Special Agent by the name of Christopher Stangl. And the file contained 12 million UDIDs.

In other words, FBI had a large database of personal information of IOS device users (iPhone users to you and me).

They said that, before releasing these one million IDs, they scrubbed the attached personal information.

FBI was not pleased. They first sent out a tweet denying the fact that they had people's private information on an FBI laptop. It is a cute one.

16 August 2012

Was "Mubarak's Poodle" Pushed Out?

If you have been reading this blog, you would know that Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi was known as Mubarak's poodle during his master's reign. I made it a point to repeat it as many times as I possibly could without appearing petulant or childish.

My purpose has been to highlight the fact that Tantawi was (and is) Washington's man as much as Mubarak was. As you can see in the above links, my view is that the Egyptian Spring was not really a popular revolution, it should more accurately be called a palace coup. Sure there were people chanting in Tahrir Square but they managed to stay there and to make themselves heard because of Tantawi's decision not to force them out. In fact, he did not lift a finger to keep Mubarak in power. Quite the contrary, his army stopped Mubarak's thugs and protected the citizens of the Square.

Everybody knew that the Brotherhood was going to take over and the one major player whose opinions counts seemed quite fine with that prospect. If you have been reading this blog, you'd know that the army and the Brotherhood began collaborating very early on and have been working together every step of the way.

So you can imagine my surprise when most media outlets announced that the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi forced Tantawi (Defense Minister for three decades) and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Sami Anan to early retirement.

06 August 2012

Syria: Is A Palace Coup Unfolding?

A few days ago, I suggested that a palace coup in Syria is the most desirable outcome for the main players in this drama. I enumerated the reasons and ventured that because of that it is also the most likely outcome. I speculated that the upcoming Aleppo massacre might provide the necessary trigger for significant defections.

Two days after I posted this, several high ranking military officers began crossing the Syrian border to join previous defectors in Turkey. Among them was the Deputy Chief of Security Forces of Latakia region, a Brigadier General and the first Syrian astronaut, General Muhammed Ahmed Faris. Yesterday another Brigadier General defected to Turkey accompanied by five high ranking officers.

This brings the total number of generals who passed to the other side to 31.

Today's announcement that the Syrian Prime Minister has joined the rebel forces is making me think that a palace coup is actually underway.

Moreover, BBC reports that:
Unconfirmed reports suggested that two other cabinet ministers had also deserted and there were claims that a third, Finance Minister Mohammad Jalilati, had been arrested while trying to flee.
As if on cue, the leader of the main Syrian opposition group Abdelbasset Seida made an unexpected announcement, just yesterday:
The leader of Syria's main political opposition group has said he is ready to negotiate with government officials whose hands are not "stained with blood" once the president, Bashar al-Assad, and his associates leave power.
The funny thing is that a short few weeks ago, they denied this very possibility.

This is beginning to look like a palace coup is taking place.

Stay tuned.

02 August 2012

Greece and Eurozone One More Time

My tiny but distinguished readership knows that I was one of the first people on the Internet to recommend a Greek default and a speedy exit.

Of course I am a total nobody. But, at least there were more authoritative voices like Krugman and Stergios Skaperdas who suggested the same approach. These contrarians knew that, with German and French banks' huge exposure to GIIPS sovereign debt (close to a trillion dollars at the time) a Greek default threat would have resulted in a much more flexible response. (Incidentally, since then the acronym GIIPS was dropped and PIIGS became more popular along with GIPSI -pronounced Gypsy- talk about adding insult to injury)

Papandreu tried this with his referendum idea but, whatever leverage they had on him, he buckled under pressure and renounced that notion within one weekend.

More than a year has passed and German and French banks had ample time to dump their sovereign debt holdings. So now you hear European officials and central bankers lightly suggesting that a Greek default is not only not feared but it is seen as a reasonable option. Every week someone else is quoted as saying that no one wants Greece to leave but they are not worried if it does. A couple of months ago BBC's Robert Peston summed it up like this:
I am mildly bemused that central bank governors seem to be talking with some equanimity about Greece leaving the euro: the Belgian central bank governor describes an "amicable divorce" as "possible"; his Irish counterpart says a Greek exit is "not necessarily fatal" though plainly not attractive.
Just last week this is what Reuters reported:
Some European politicians and central bankers clearly see jettisoning a delinquent member as a salutory lesson to others not to abuse club privileges. Like the English in Voltaire's philosophical novel Candide, they believe "it's a good thing to execute an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others".
I think this is rubbish talk designed to hide a colossal game of chicken. And contrary to what you read in the papers, despite the reduction in direct exposure, European governments are scared witless of a Greek exit.

If they are not they should be.

Let me try to explain why.

28 July 2012

What Could be the Syrian Endgame?

As I write this, a serious battle in and around Aleppo is raging. This will very likely end in massacre and human tragedy.

Most commentators have been saying that this is the final chapter in Assad's rule and he is on his way out. Unless they know something that we don't, I don't see how the opposition can drive his powerful army out.

Which got me to thinking that there must be something else that everyone is counting upon.

Since NATO or the US ruled out military intervention, there are two possibilities. One of them is that Turkey, the only regional power with the military capability, will go in.

Some observers actually believe that Turkey is getting ready to intervene militarily. They point to Erdogan's recent visit to Moscow and then to China as an effort to convince them to change their stance (since both Russia and China used their Security Council vetoes after Erdogan's visit, if that was the goal of his visit, it should be considered a failure).

But I am not sure that this was the goal of his visit. I think the aim was to inform Russia of the endgame being planned and remind Putin that Russia should stay neutral as Turkey is a much more strategically important ally. Besides being an ascendant regional power, Turkey is an important economic outlet for Russia. With their bilateral trade reaching $30 billion in 2011 and over 2000 Turkish companies investing and operating in Russia, it is clearly a more important partner than Syria. 

Moreover, Putin knows that, one way or another, Assad's days are numbered and he is too clever to continue to bet on a losing horse.

But the visit clearly indicates that something is being prepared. As I previously enumerated the reasons for Turkey's extreme reluctance to intervene militarily, I seriously doubt that a military push is in the cards. Besides, a foreign intervention might backfire by changing again the shifting alliances within Syria.

A Palace Coup?

This leaves only the possibility of a palace coup. I have no idea whether this is actually the case but a palace coup is the only way Assad could be removed from power in a short period of time. Operationally, I can see how the upcoming Aleppo massacre could lead to large defections within the ruling elite and how this could topple the regime from within.

25 July 2012

Can Anyone Tell Me What is Wrong With Spain?

I was going to write about my favorite Eurozone subject, i.e. whether Greece should default or not. And in the course of checking up some statistics, I realized that something was rotten in the state of Spain.

And it is not what you think.

You see, I kept reading story after story that Spain was in trouble, its economy was in shambles, the austerity measures its conservative government introduced needed to be redoubled, etc. But I couldn't find a single piece that explained to me why this was the case. Not one.

All the articles pointed to the pre-2008 real estate and construction boom and the subsequent bursting of the bubble. The only other element they all mentioned was high unemployment.

I realized that there was something wrong with this picture as this was supposed to be a crisis caused by countries living beyond their means. That's why we need austerity measures, right?

Well, according to Wikipedia, at the start of the crisis period, Spain's public debt was 36.2 percent of its GDP. Even in 2010, Spain's debt was lower than Britain, France or Germany. And according to this map at 63 percent it is still one of the lowest in Europe. Take a look at France, Germany, Belgium and Britain in that map.

Wikipedia puts the debt a little higher than 63 percent but remarks that it is still lower than the Eurozone average: "As of June 15, 2012, Spain's public debt stood at 72.1% of GDP, still less that the Euro-zone average of 88%."

As for unemployment, well, it "stood at 7.6% in October 2006, a rate that compared favorably to many other European countries." Sure, it rose to over 17 percent when the crisis hit, as the construction sector accounted for almost 16 percent of the GDP. And it reached 25 percent with several rounds of austerity measures. But unemployment was not a structural issue, as it has since been commonly reported. It was the dependent variable in the equation, not the causal factor.

18 July 2012

The Significance of the Syrian Suicide Bomb

As you probably know by now, a suicide bomber managed to get inside the National Security Building and killed three members of Bashar al-Assad's inner circle.
Defence minister General Daoud Rajha and Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat were killed and interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security, were wounded, the channel and security officials said.
I have seen many breathless reporting about how this signals the end of the regime and how this should be marked as a turning point.

I am not so sure that this event presages the imminent collapse of the regime. While it is a major coup for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) they are still no match for the relatively formidable firepower and manpower of the Syrian Armed Forces.

The event, however, is significant in one respect. If the suicide bomber is (as it was reported early on) one of the bodyguards of these officials, I will have to assume that he was one of the thousands of Sunnis integrated into the power structure. Just like General Manaf Tlas who defected ten days ago.

If that was the case, this event signals that the current situation has now become an entirely sectarian conflict. If you remember the Bosnian civil war, even people who were sympathetic to the positions of the other side (or were linked to them through marriage, jobs and other social arrangements) had to choose a side quickly and then they were locked in to that identity for the duration of the conflict (and even beyond).

If a Sunni bodyguard was involved in this suicide bombing, it would mean that a highly trained and thoroughly vetted member of an elite force could now be turned by the lure of a primordial identity. It would indicate that someone who was not previously interested in that part of his identity was now suggestible enough to take his own life to harm what he perceives as "the other side."

That is bad news for al-Assad and the Alewites in Syria.

It is also bad news for the regime in general as it will force them to react to this catastrophic incident. And they have no good options.

One thing they might have to do is to purge the power structure of Sunnis. After Manaf Tlas and this bodyguard they would be fools not to do it. Such a move would inevitably enhance the sectarian nature of the conflict as loyal Sunnis, who served the Alewite minority for decades would find themselves sidelined and thrown under the bus in the middle of a civil war.

Expect mass defections if that happens.

Secondly, the regime might feel obligated to show that it has the upper hand militarily and might do something as reckless as carpet bomb several Sunni strongholds to kill thousands of civilians and ask their Shahiba militias to massacre a few hundred people.

Unfortunately for them, either of these moves would inevitably strengthen the sectarian identities and sharpen the dividing lines between warring factions. And Sunnis outnumber other minorities and they have the backing of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Conversely, not doing any of these things might be perceived as a sign of weakness by the other side and could embolden them and the foreign forces behind them.

In other words, in my opinion, today's bombing was significant not because it killed a couple of senior Bashar allies. It was significant because it might force Bashar's hand to act in a way that would hasten his own demise.

Stay tuned.


The FSA now claims that the blast was caused by a remote controlled device (instead of a suicide bomber) which was put in place the day before.

If this is true, it strengthens my point further, as such a setup would require extensive assistance from inside. The location and timing of the meeting had to be communicated. The bomb had to be smuggled into the building. And the device had to be planted and armed.

All of this would imply a major inside job involving several people. And Bashar al-Assad's equally unpalatable choices would remain the same.

What is Happening in Saudi Arabia?

Right now, everybody is focused on Syria.

That is understandable. A lot is happening there and with the killing of civilians by the hundreds, widespread torture allegations, the downing of a Turkish plane, and now, the Red Cross declaring that a civil war is underway, the whole thing plays out like a macabre soap opera.

But, as my tiny readership knows, ever the optimist, I see the implosion of Syria not just as a further descent into hellish chaos but as a prelude to something hopeful, a solution involving Kurdish statehood. It is like the apocryphal Chinese character "crisis." Horror leading to a new birth. It won't be easy, it won't be bloodless and it won't be very quick. But I believe something good will come out of this carnage.

I am worried, on the other hand, about the future of a country that is almost always absent from the headlines. A country so ruthlessly autocratic that, from outside, it appears like a paragon of stability. I am, of course, talking about Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most oppressive, reactionary and misogynistic regimes in the world. It tortures, imprisons and kill its citizens. Saudi women have no social or political rights. Its Islamic police force called Mutaween, tasked with enforcing the Sharia, is so strict that, ten years ago in a school fire it stopped 15 girls from leaving the school because they did not have proper Islamic dresses on them and let them burn alive.

Its political system should properly be called the last absolute monarchy in the world. The Saudi king's legitimacy is derived from two sources. One is spiritual the other is lineage. Together they constitute a very peculiar dynastic alliance.

10 July 2012

Egypt: Tantawi vs Mursi

As I mentioned a few days ago, just before presidential runoff elections, the Egyptian army gave itself new powers and dissolved the parliament on the basis of a recent decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) which found certain aspects of legislative elections unconstitutional.

Yesterday, the newly elected President ordered the parliament to be reopened. His argument was that the SCC simply found aspects of legislative elections problematic and cancelled those elections. The dissolution of the parliament was the army's decision not the SCC's. But since new elections are 60 days ahead, the country needed this parliament as an interim legislative body.

Not unexpectedly, the Court immediately stated that its decision was binding and the dissolution should stand. And the army said that the decision to dissolve the parliament should be respected. This was reported as a "warning" throughout the Western media.

My take is that this is much ado about nothing.

I seriously doubt that the army will intervene in any significant fashion. After all, in the world according to Contrarian Progressive, the two sides are no longer mortal enemies: it was the army that allowed the ouster of Mubarak and opened the way to an Islamist transition. They knew full well that the Brotherhood was going to be the dominant political force and yet they let Mubarak go. Since then, they implemented some measures to ensure that (a) their immense wealth and power will go unchallenged and (b) they had veto power over key issues in case things got out of hand.

07 July 2012

I Never Thought I Would Disagree With Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk is one of my heroes.

He has been covering the Middle East for decades and he knows about the region more than any journalist alive. Given the American media's one sided coverage, he was often the only source that included the views of the other regional actors.

Imagine my discomfort when I found myself disagreeing with such an icon. My contrarian streak finally put me in an indefensible position, I thought. But, in the immortal words of an unconvicted war criminal, it is what it is.

On 29 June Robert Fisk wrote that Bashar al-Assad might remain in power for another two years as the US, Russia and most of the regional powers were about to agree to keep him in power for that time frame.
According to a source intimately involved in the possible transition from Baath party power, the Americans, Russians and Europeans are also putting together an agreement that would permit Assad to remain leader of Syria for at least another two years in return for political concessions to Iran and Saudi Arabia in both Lebanon and Iraq.
 He notes that the current situation is not really working out for al-Assad:
Information from Syria suggests that Assad’s army is now “taking a beating” from armed rebels, who include Islamist as well as nationalist forces; at least 6,000 soldiers are now believed to have been murdered or killed in action since the rebellion against Assad began 17 months ago. 
Despite that, the US is apparently keen on negotiating with Russia to acknowledge Iran's patron saint status for Iraq and Hezbollah to enable Saudi Arabia and Qatar to look after Sunni rights in those places.
The US-Russian negotiations – easy to deny, and somewhat cynically hidden behind the current mutual accusations of Hillary Clinton and her Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov – would mean that the superpowers would acknowledge Iran’s influence over Iraq and its relationship with its Hezballah allies in Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia – and Qatar - would be encouraged to guarantee Sunni Muslim rights in Lebanon and in Iraq. 
In other words, the US spent a couple of trillion dollars, sacrificed over four thousand American troops, killed hundreds of thousands Iraqis, established five big bases all over Iraq only to agree that Iran should have control over it.

30 June 2012

Minitel Is No More

Does anyone remember the Minitel?

It was, as the BBC put it recently, the French Wide Web or more accurately, the Francenet that came before the Internet.

The BBC piece was very good in conveying how the project was both an extraordinary technical achievement - something France excelled at until quite recently-  and a disastrous commercial endeavor.

They introduced an outstanding product which relied on the most advanced digital infrastructure of that era (this is from memory, but almost 80 percent of French phone lines were digital in 1979 and their closest rival, I think the US,  had less than 20 percent).

And their finishing touch was to put it in a regulatory straight-jacket to prevent any innovation and entrepreneurial push.

But in its heyday, "Minitel connections were stable at 100 million a month plus 150 million online directory inquiries." More interestingly, "in 1986 French university students coordinated a national strike using Minitel, demonstrating an early use of digital communication devices for participatory technopolitical ends."

And today was the last day of Minitel.

I highly recommend the BBC piece if history of technology interests you. It is definitely not geeky and quite funny.

Besides all that, I found this line from Jacques Chirac ironic:
 "Today a baker in Aubervilliers knows perfectly how to check his bank account on the Minitel. Can the same be said of the baker in New York?"
You know why the line is ironic?

Today, if you have an account in a French bank your daily statement is two to three days behind schedule. ATM machines are known here as "Distributeur de Billets" which means the only transaction they allow is to withdraw money. You can't ask for your balance and the balance it shows at the end of a withdrawal is a couple of days old. No transfers between accounts, no deposits, no bill payments, nothing.

A New Dawn in Egypt

Muhammed Mursi will shortly be sworn in as Egypt's new President. He will be the first civilian President in Egypt's history (for factual sticklers, there was Sufi Abu Taleb, who was the Acting President for eight days after Sadat's assassination but that does not count).

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the so called Scaf, will hand over the power to the President in a few hours.

The day before the results of Egyptian presidential elections were announced I thought about posting a piece to predict that the Brotherhood candidate was going to win and the Egyptian army was going to abide by the results. But, even though I felt reasonably confident about that prediction I decided not to post it. In that part of the world, you can come up with the most plausible scenario only to see it destroyed at the last minute by some unforeseen event.

That is one of the reasons I have been cautious about stating my working hypotheses. They make a lot of sense to me but I am cognizant of the fact that all it would take for them to go up in smoke is a strategically placed bomb by some marginal player.

So the Mursi's victory was reassuring in that respect.

Let me explain why I found it reassuring for the purposes of this humble soapbox.