Middle East – repression and rigor mortis

Four Franciscan monks shouted in al-Aqsa that “Mohammad was a libertine, murderer, glutton,” who believed in “whoring”! The qadi offered them the chance to recant. When they refused, they were tortured and beaten almost to death. A bonfire was built in the courtyard of the Church where “almost drunk with rage” the mob hacked them into pieces “so that not even a human shape remained”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Jerusalem”

The assault on the American consulate in Libya consisted of two separate attacks that forced the Americans from the consulate and then besieged them in a second building in a gun battle that lasted four and half hours, according to a detailed timeline from a senior administration official.

The bloody offensive by extremists killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In addition, three more U.S. personnel were wounded.

ABC NEWS

We know that the second quote above happened just days ago. The first was in 1391 – 621 years ago.

The first was direct – but, even then, the four monks were given a chance to repent and were the instigators of the attacks themselves.

The second was the result of a second-rate short film that was made by people totally unconnected to those that died in the US Embassy in Libya.

621 years separates the two examples – 621 years of great technological and wealth advancements across the world. But, 621 years where, in some places, there has been regression, not progress, and where repression (of freedom, freedom of thought, of economic progress and education) has left in its wake a mind-system that is mired in the 14th Century or before.

Lessons unlearned

The break-up of Yugoslavia (a state held together under the iron-grip of Tito) provided lessons that we ignore to today.  Thousand-year-old conflicts and hatreds which had been suppressed since communism’s rule came to the surface and yielded to bloodshed and ethnic cleansing.

So, the Arab Spring has erupted in tensions coming to the surface in the one location that has, for many years, been seen as the powder keg of the world. No surprise, surely?

Repression in the Middle East has been there for thousands of years. We don’t expect democracy and freedom of thought to suddenly erupt in China (or most don’t) but a few despots are overthrown in Tunisia and Libya and rejoicing takes place. We ignore the simmering tensions that such societies have endured for centuries as we assume that democracy will fix everything.  The West kept many regimes in place, drew many of the borders ourselves (often, borders which made no sense and instilled more tensions – such as in Sudan), sought oil supplies and the propping up of regimes to see to it that our energy supplies continued, tolerated the bribery and corruption and power that elites gave to themselves and enabled companies to make those bribes for the last 100 years.

Tony Blair was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier today. He said that he had travelled 87 times in the last few years to the Middle East and that it would “take a generation” for countries to settle into new institutions and systems that would prevent such tensions. While he has enormous knowledge of this area, a “generation” is no time at all – but, while a lot can be done in that time, the tensions are not just on the surface but deep.

Education and opportunity

The Middle East and North Africa have not just opened up to our version of the 21st Century. In our new global economy, we have focused our attention on to the newly developing nations of China, India, Brazil and others and have tended to ignore these deeply repressed regions. War and repression have characterized them for two thousand years. Elites have conquered their way to glory and wealth where religion has been used as an excuse. Religious extremism has been embedded for so long that we see it as the core issue. But, extremism in Christianity was common in the thirteenth Century and before – the Crusades were rooted in violence and death.

The changes that took place in Christianity (which was, in its earlier days, not wedded to the “turn the other cheek” dictum) have been profound but took centuries as first rulers broke away from theocracies, began to rule on behalf of their subjects (rather than being above the law) and allowed the dissemination of justice and then economic progress to be shared amongst the population. As this happened, the repression of one’s own subjects ceased to be the norm (although fascism, Nazi-ism and Stalinist and Maoist Communism attempted to break the deal).

Elsewhere, theocracies or dictatorships continue. Overthrowing despotism does not overthrow the belief systems underneath.

This is the core of the issue – the longer that institutions are allowed to fester, the worse the situation erupts when change takes place. Ossified institutions repress change and thought. The Middle East is worse – the institutions are in a state of rigor mortis. Beneath, the potential for unrest is striking – even with the numbers of liberal-minded, the mass of the populations are poor – in terms of education and wealth.

Chances

In the West, we talk about wanting to give our kids the best chance in life through education. In the Middle East, where we tolerate and even support regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain because of their oil, we are relatively powerless to the onslaughts of hatred.

But, in a global society, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Can we help the Middle East and Africa, so long under the repression of dictators and theocracies, to not just overthrow those elites that bind them but to also embrace a culture that we believe works? Can Western ideals of freedom of thought, religious tolerance (or tolerance of no religion), economic freedom and wealth creation shared amongst the population be brought into the thinking of these countries? Can institutions and sclerotic minds be changed?

As we battle economically with the Chinese (and hope that the repressed emotions between the Chinese and Japanese does not get out of control over Diaoyu / Senkaku), we have to battle with the repressed institutions of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as much as Syria, Libya and Somalia or DRC. This is a never-ending battle of ideas and betterment – the belief that whatever one’s views on the afterlife, ensuring that this life should be a good one is as important and that no individual (or elite) deserves to capture all the chances. Chances have to be spread to as wide a sector of the population as possible.

This is not the culture of 1000 AD – it is the culture of the 21st Century – and a battle that is worth waging. We live in a global economy but also a close-knit world beyond economics – fuelled by communication systems that work to inform and dis-inform – fast and furious.

Opportunities

Old and outdated institutions will, eventually, explode under the weight of their inadequacy. But, explosions can hurt. Just as our own institutions need to be overhauled when they don’t work (and there are many instances of this in the West – where we continuously run the risk of institutional failure) so we should help where it is clear that repression exists through institutional rigor mortis.

Recent moves to support the new opportunities being created in countries like Tunisia and Libya should not be stopped because some of the repressed have not been given chances to improve their understanding of reality and have over-reacted to a film made to incite.  We should now support those like Mohamed Morsi in Egypt who has said: “We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet, but it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad.”

This is an act of bridging – between the repressed and the future – which we should now be supporting. Opportunities have to be developed and out of the super-charged environment, so reminiscent of that which operated over 600 years ago, the West should react positively. Changes may take a long time and we may find that other disasters (such as to our environment) may well get in the way. But, Blair is right on this one. We have to keep engaging.

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Politics – the battle lines between citizens and the state

 

Why the party system is breaking down

Communications leads to changes

 

Types of government have changed with changes in communications. When communications was by word of mouth, strong central government through despotic leaders was the norm.

 

With the advent of the printing press, information could be made more available and (certainly in the West) education could be obtained more widely, leading to different forms of government and wider emancipation.

 

Now, with the dramatic communication changes wrought through mobile telephony and the internet, information (of all types, good and bad, intelligent and unintelligent) is made available throughout the world and the strains in our current governing structures are made worse.

 

The Arab Spring erupted for a variety of reasons but spread through new communication devices and systems. The organization of mass campaigns becomes easier and the attempts to stifle protests by shutting down websites and demanding changes to other, online capabilities is progressively harder.

 

Is the Party over?

 

Political parties are now finding it tougher to piece together coherent and wide-ranging policies that appeal to more than a small percentage of a nation’s population. In a word of communication possibilities, single-issue lobbying is becoming the norm. Politicians in the west continuously argue for choice but the choice that is now on offer, between major political parties without a cause (such as labour rights in the early 20th Century) is not welcomed.

 

As wealth increases (as we develop into the Affluent Society of Galbraith – see:   https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-affluent-society-and-social-balance/

 

so do the opportunities to connect with a wide range of issues – be they environmental, health, sport, education, self-help, business, charitable or whatever. The numbers of people that engage with politics becomes less because people are engaging with single issues. Parties rarely have a key message that intoxicates any more and are driven to compromise on a wide range of issues that appeal to no-one in particular. This means that voting may be on single issues or they are watered down to choose a party that is less bad than the others.

 

 

 

 

Greece – democracy’s floundering founder

 

In Greece, so dismally rent by bad government and economic disaster, the situation is playing out. Here, the people cannot elect a majority party to power and are being forced to vote again until they do. The party system is broken in Greece and single-issue politics dominates to the extent that the people have made their choice but the politicians don’t like it and tell them to do it again.

 

This makes a mockery of democracy in the home of democracy – an irony that is surely not lost on anyone but a potential disaster. The problem is that even if the Greek people are forced to make a different decision in a few weeks’ time, there is no guarantee that the result will be accepted by them and the demonstrations will begin again. The parties need to adapt to the will of the people by ensuring that the single-issues are wrapped into an acceptable set of policies that the majority are willing to accept – they should have done this first time around and it speaks volumes about the paucity of leadership in Greece that this has not happened.

 

Centralisation no longer works

 

A problem with the European Community which has been exacerbated by the Euro is that political judgements made after the end of the Second World War are not relevant to the 21st Century. While trading blocks are an economic decision, a political block (aimed at tying Germany into a framework which would prevent it from the belligerence of two world wars and providing Europe with a seat at any political table for many years to come) becomes a heavy weight to bear in a world that is likely to eschew centralization.

 

Vastly improved communications (including air travel) means that real globalization is the norm. Opportunities are now in place for a dramatic de-centralisation of political power in many countries and between them. Even if we need the UN, the WTO and other world-wide organisations, they are based on a 19th Century division based on the nation-state. We witness daily the huge challenges that this brings in places like Sudan or Iraq – nation states drawn by the pencils and rulers of 19th Century European civil servants, where older affiliations strike at the heart of the state philosophy.

 

In developed nations, the struggle is less severe but the economic stresses that are beginning to tear at countries like Greece, Spain (where half of the young people are unemployed), Ireland (the scene of a mass exodus after so many years of its reversal) are leading to a disenfranchisement. Italy, with an unelected government of “technocrats”, is surely not the model for the future – where votes are wasted and bankers rule from the centre.

 

A New Model needed?

 

New Model politics has to take into account the needs of a better-educated and often single-issue motivated people who need politicians that are there for them.

 

The political parties have to show themselves to be free from corruption and independent of being in politics for what they can get out of it.

 

The parties have to work together where needed and confront the problems of the past that means that each party opposes each other.

 

In the UK, this has been shown very clearly when, after a hundred years of parties being set up to oppose others, the Coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats is set upon by many (especially a quixotic press) because they are trying to work together!

 

This is likely to be the norm. It means that coalitions will be the norm. This will be the political “new normal” to go with the new normal posited for our economic future.

 

Single-issues dominate our thinking and generate enthusiasm more than any political party in the developed world. It is only where democracy is new that parties with major and wide-ranging programmes gain real enthusiasm – which is usually dissipated quickly. Elsewhere, massive disenfranchisement is continuous and leads to a dissatisfaction with politics and politicians.

 

Parties are now the vested interests that need to change. We should see a situation where each party’s manifesto shows clearly what they would do together if that is the way it turns out – not be scared of the prospect because it may lose some votes early on. This is a big change but essential as voters’ (citizens’) needs over single issues dominate and they have no way to select a range of issues from those on offer – only a range of parties with massive ranges of policies.

 

In a world of perceived “choice”, the parties need to change to excite and enthuse or we will suffer the continued estrangement of citizens and political parties that will not result well.

Sudan – China’s Supply Chain Gang

George Clooney got arrested yesterday – outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC. He was freed with a $100 fine – but he (and his journalist father) have brought some attention to the awful situation in Sudan / Nuba / South Sudan.

I was in Khartoum in 2010 on behalf of Global Witness, an NGO that campaigns against natural resource funded corruption and conflict. The Sudanese had reacted badly to a report we had written on how oil resources were being corruptly handled against the interests of the South Sudanese – who have since gained independence. Around 98% of the income is from oil.

At the conference organized in Khartoum by the Sudanese Government – and aimed at rubbishing the Global Witness report – the oil companies were represented (Chinese at the forefront) along with the Government and oil ministries. The conference was aimed at whitewashing the Sudanese of corruptly taking more than their fair share of the oil under the oil sharing agreement.

Since then, Bashir’s Government has been syphoning off South Sudanese oil (which has to run through Sudanese pipelines).  Because Sudan is made up of various tribes, fighting over territory and natural resources remains continuous and high-risk. As in many countries, economic well-being is a necessity to ensure that such conflict is minimized. In a country riven by wars and dependent on one natural resource, oil, oil management and an ending of the rampant corruption in Sudan and South Sudan are critical.

19th Century Boundaries

Sudan is a nation with boundaries set up in the 19th Century by Empires that adored straight lines and cared little and understood less about the tribal affiliations or histories of those lands. Kept together by undemocratic and repressive regimes, corruption and conflict were devices developed to hold strong elites in power. Corruption is now rampant throughout the region and conflict is often seen not just as a means to take over territory but to keep populations focused on the enemy so as to distract them from internal strife and to motivate all against a common foe.

Decisions taken many years ago by foreigners have destabilized the region and insinuated a corrupt regime and continuous conflict into it. The new colonizers, though, are the Chinese. As George Clooney states, the Chinese oil companies (really the Chinese Government) have invested over $20bn in Sudan / South Sudan so that 6% of their oil needs back home can be fed. They have styled their colonialism on the back of “no involvement” in politics or in the affairs of the Sudanese. Confucian disinterest in the affairs of a nation so far away means that the west’s plans (certainly since the end of WWII) to link economic prosperity (mainly through aid) with improved governance are now foundering as the new colonialists (extracting vast quantities of natural resources) care nothing about governance.

21st Century Payback – China at the centre

Following the demise of the League of Nations after WWI (a bastion of 19th Century borders), the United Nations was created to establish peace worldwide. How will the 21st Century be reshaped to deal with the enormous economic changes taking place whereby dominant nations from the 20th Century are being progressively sidelined in those areas of greatest economic need and highest risk of conflict?

China despite its size and annual economic growth remains a poor country where 70% of its people are poor by international standards. It is determined to grow itself to a level where its people are comfortable and where the political system is salvaged. This means that its supply chain (especially its natural resource supply chain) is seen as merely that – it doesn’t matter that nations who have the natural resources so badly needed for economic growth in China are corrupt and riven by war as long as the Chinese can minimize supply disruptions. This may have been OK in the 19th Century but is not sufficient now where elites are enriched in the supplier nations on the back of corruption and conflict.

The key to the crisis in Sudan and the key to making a real change to 21st Century struggles against corruption (and its impact on poverty, hunger and disease), against conflict and against world-changing disasters like climate change is ………China.

Whether or not China is dominant in terms of its economy – and it is still much smaller than the USA – it has the power of veto and, more positively in terms of persuasion.

China can free the Supply Chain Gang

Whilst economic strength moves to China at great speed, the Chinese government has to take account of the fact that its customers and suppliers and itself are completely interdependent. China will probably over time become the most interdependent nation on this planet. Its huge population and increased momentum for economic growth will encounter limits that the current Premier, Wen Jiabao recently acknowledged. Increasing “reform and openness” are critical to further economic progress, he said recently in Beijing.

As out-going Premier he will not in the future have the power he currently possesses and Chinese power is entangled in many ways so that his words may not bear fruit. Nevertheless, there is some reason to believe that the government in China may seek to adapt as time goes on – because economic progress is vital to secure the political power base. At the same time, it is possible to see that (with the right pressure) Chinese attitudes to its customers and suppliers may be reformed to more than purely customer / supplier status. China is not a corporation and the competition for natural resources is not merely a supply chain activity – there are lives at stake within the supplier communities, not just shareholders and shareholdings.

Sudan and South Sudan are examples of so many things – countries dependent on a natural resource which is dissipating that basic wealth to a foreign country so that a core of wealthy and powerful government cadres get wealthier while thousands live in poverty, disease and in war zones. While China treats Sudan and South Sudan on a supply chain basis, no change can exist – and this same treatment is expanded wherever China works to secure supplies.

The Clooneys and Amnesty International and Enough (as well as organisations such as Global Witness) are working hard to free the Sudanese and South Sudanese from the terror of war. It is also a crucial case for expansion of China’s role in natural resource extraction and dependency. China can change the way the world works by relaxing is grip on pure supply economics and allowing its huge economic strength to persuade its suppliers that good governance is a worthwhile benefit along with the extraction of its natural resource wealth.

Holes in the ground – whether the result of mining, oil extraction or graves dug to bury the dead from conflicts – are no use, merely the result of the supply chain gang effect. It is a good time for China to take its global responsibilities more seriously. It will be around for a long time – it should be seriously acting on how it lives within the global neighbourhood. The traditional Chinese view that you should follow the local custom when you go to a new place is outmoded – especially when local customs are keeping elites in power, corrupted and financing conflicts.