Category Archives: Middle East

Bull in a china shop

Democracy is on the rise. Arabs are finally, painfully getting rid of their Western-supported or Western-opposed -and really, what’s the difference at the end of the day- dictators that have secured a steady and cheap flow of oil over the past decades. The democratic West looks on, emitting a feeble “Hurrah!”

“Come on. Can’t you guys at least pretend to be happy for us?” an Arab observer might say. “Sure, we’re a bit late to the party, but can we at least get a drink up in this bitch?”

Here’s the thing though, and for this we need to rewind the tape a good 25 years, the end of communism didn’t spell the end of history. The interesting times were only beginning, to paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb. Liberal markets and their inseparable political analogue democracy had won. Yeay! China, fast opening its economy to the forces of supply and demand, would soon learn that for that system to work, politicians too needed to receive feedback on their performance. A healthy market can’t survive without a steadily improving regulatory framework, i.e. a democratic-ish state.

Then came Tienanmen, followed by two decades of casual +10% growth lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The U.S. and your average old European social-market economies managed 3% to 4%, in a handful of good years. In relative terms, and due to the end of cheap oil also in absolute terms, the latter have been getting poorer. As Marsellus Wallace tells Butch in Pulp Fiction: “That’s a hard motherfucking fact of life.” Now you can hide said fact by means of budgetary wizardry, selling state property, cutting welfare expenditure, education budgets, or simply allowing banks to blow bubbles until everbody’s high with dollar signs in their eyes, but sooner or later your boxer is going to refuse to go down in the 5th.

With China on a high streak, happily yodeling down the mountain with no seat belts and more importantly, no political feedback system to efficiently steer a fair and sustainable distribution of wealth, the question is this: Were generations of political thinkers, starting with the Greeks over Montesquieu to err, Ronald Reagan, and basically everyone involved in inventing post world-war II Western-style democracy, high on crack? American and European leaders are surely, quietly asking themselves this question: Has democracy as we know it become a liability to the quest for economic growth? Can we possibly beat China, or simply not be eaten by it, without emulating its totalitarian political system? Even tree-huggers are jealous by now at China’s relentless push toward renewable energy.

Like so many enchanted cat owners, one hesitates to imagine what politicians get up to at night. I’m sure some actually do go home to their wives or quietly read Proust. Until, that is, they are rudely interrupted by panicky business leaders who can’t compete against these Chinese juggernauts. Not with these workers’ wages. “Is there anything you can do?” Well, one way to ease a voter’s mind into voting against his or her interest is to scare them half to death. “Islam!” I mean, “Booh!” You can have the Rupert Murdochs of the free world constrict the free flow of information to fickle electorates or just go old-school, like South-Africa yesterday, by shooting dead 30 striking miners. Lots of subtle signs indicate that something is going on, something is changing, and it doesn’t sound/taste/smell like bold new steps to deepen  citizens’ participation in society.

While your cat -I mean, representative is having a great night out in the aviary, on the premise that China is doing fine without that rare bird called democracy, said up and coming superpower is secretly discovering the contrary. Local mayors, governors and assorted appointed apparatchicks cannot be trusted to operate complex economies without up to the minute feedback on just how bad they are doing. Capital punishment does not scare the corrupt into becoming holy men. Formerly jailed from the get go, bloggers are now issued punch-card licenses: yes, you’re allowed to finger-point failing hospitals or a crumbling bridge, but only about five times. It’s not democracy, but a far cry from the Cultural Revolution, and a giant leap for an institution attempting to feed and house a billion and a half people, otherwise known as the entire world population at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Chinese economy becomes more complex and grows, so will the need to quickly rotate the folks in charge. Crowd-sourcing the decisions underpinning these rotations is simply more efficient. Cheaper, if you will. Economically sound. Get it? I.e. free markets need political oversight, but political oversight needs oversight by free people. In other words, China did not magically break the bond between economic growth and popular emancipation. It’s simply not happening at a fast-food pace.

Are our politicians catching up to the fact that the Middle Kingdom is catching up, or are they still talking bull about the china shop?

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Filed under Arab Spring, democracy, Islam, Middle East

This shit is really happening.

Good lord. I mean that literally. And by literally I mean as an incantation to someone or something to please, stop this from happening. Or maybe just cut out the bad bits, the stuff that actually kills people. The Hollywood way, as perceived by a seven year-old version of yours truly: innocuous A-Team jeeps flipping over and worst-marksmen-of-the-world gunfire. And if some anonymous border guard does have to get hurt, no more than a sprained ankle please, let there be less kin to wail and scream to the heavens in vicarious ligamental agony. As in, no one was injured in the writing of this book.

And yet, eerily, Egyptians, Israelis, and penumbrous groups are following the script. A year and a half after the revolution the battle still rages. In many ways, it hasn’t yet begun. The generals have sacrificed the big cheese, but the kidney stones are still there. Any nurse will tell you: stand back when old men prepare to pee. Meanwhile, somewhat less metaphorically, the Sinai/Israel border heats up. “We gave up this land, and for what?” Israelis lament. Egyptians clamor to amend the Camp David accords that prohibit their army from deploying on the peninsula in a meaningful way. The Bedouin tribes of the Sinai, not just neglected but actively discriminated against during the Mubarak years, claim to be on top of things. Eking a living from scrape-barrel tourism and yes, smuggling, the tribes have maintained a balance amongst themselves, maintaining a semblance security, tolerating and at times pushing back state authority. However, cracks are beginning to show.

The old generals, eager to show up their erstwhile foes and current holders of the scepter, didn’t have to look far for the new rulers’ achilles heel. Israeli contingency plans have long been drawn up. They too had rather see the Muslim Brotherhood gone. The Palestinians of Gaza meanwhile, kettled in and desperate, will do what kettled in and desperate people do. They will find a way. Wouldn’t you?

The dice are rolling. And man, this book is alive in a way I wish I entirely wished it wasn’t.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Indigenous Rights, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Revolution, seismic changes

It’s the army, stupid.

When you talk to pacifists, and I consider myself one, you often hear: “Well, we don’t want to abolish the army of course. You need them for peacekeeping missions in silly countries that need peacekeeping missions. Oh, and a guy in uniform can fill up a sandbag better than anyone in case a levee breaks.” What they forget to mention, obviously, are zombie outbreaks, large disgruntled apes, and bad-ass aliens. No, not immigrants, I mean actual beings from outer space that have come to pop a straw in your neck and drink your blood like a juice box. Armies are great. In addition, whereas a country’s police protects ordinary citizens against each other, armies protect a country’s institutions in case said citizens disagree a little too enthusiastically with the way things are going. And by ‘things’ I mean ‘money’.

Sometimes the army itself becomes so much a part of a country’s institutions and economic fabric, that you can’t really trust citizens to offer any meaningful critique as to its workings and goals. Of course nothing instills a wary public of an army’s raison d’être than the occasional war. In that sense, the Cold War has been the most elaborate attempt at having your cake and eating it. Out of control defense spending without the all-out destruction of civilian infrastructure. As good as anyway, barring the silly countries that were simply clamoring to host the odd proxy war. They’re fucked now, and in dire need of peacekeeping missions. Just the thing our guys are good at. You break it, you buy it, sort of. Too cynical, anyone? Must be the rain pouring down in buckets as Brussels prepares for tomorrow’s Fête National, scripted and organized by, you guessed it. Thinking about our boys in Afghanistan who are doing such a brilliant job saving Afghans from themselves and the accrued results of 200 years of Western altruism.

Meanwhile on 23 July Egypt will look back on the 60 years that have elapsed since the army removed king Farouk from office. Evil tongues called him a puppet. If that was the case, I wouldn’t want to have been the guy pulling the strings. King Farouk was somewhat on the chubby side. Anyway, what a wonderful 60 years it’s been. One has to credit this band of military brothers for their unfailing business savvy, changing horses mid-stream, and thus riding out the cold war on the right side of history, pocketing billions in support from the greatest army on earth called the United States.

Believe everything they say.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Middle East, Revolution

Bab el Hadid

When Youssef Chahine authored “Bab el Hadid”, known in English as “Cairo Station” in 1958, it was promptly banned for 20 years. People and censor alike were shocked by its realistic portrayal of a troubled society. Chahine introduces us to Qinawi (played by himself) a poor, perverted newspaper vendor, and Hanuma (played by Hind Rostom, Egypt’s erstwhile Marilyn Monroe), as the beautiful woman constantly chased by police for peddling soft drinks illegally. Abu Serib is Hanuma’s soon to be husband who desperately tries to form a union opposing an old crony who calls the shots in and around the station. Trains arrive and leave every minute, spewing out and absorbing people from all walks of life. Like the place, the movie is a microcosm of the country and times. Not just then, but acutely, today still.

Chahine weaves in a women’s protest march, and a band of young musicians reveling in a fusion of rock n roll and, well, Egypt. Delectable Hanuma sells them Pepsi and a smile. Passersby disparage this infliction to native culture. “It’s all those new-fangled ideas. They lead us straight to hell,” says a man, funnily enough with a Sabena poster behind him. Headscarves are few and far in between. It seems like a different epoch altogether. And yet, men’s attitudes to women, not just the perverted Qinawi, are a grim reminder of how little has changed. The economics of frustration -no job means no house means no wife means no sex means exploding thirty year-olds- remains as it was in 1958.

The film itself also remains as it was back then; a masterpiece of human cultural achievement.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Middle East, seismic changes

Wanderers of the Desert

A young teacher arrives at a village in the middle of the desert. His task is to, well, teach the children. Only problem is, the entire village is cursed, and the children disappear one by one to join a group of ‘wanderers of the desert’. Before leaving, a well speaks, urging them to break all mirrors in the village, and use the shards in an unexplained ritual. The story-telling of this beautifully shot film is both loose and low-paced, in step with recent Arab history. Torn between the mystical, anecdotal past, nostalgia for Andalusia -a paradise lost, and modernity in the guise of the wrathful police officer, the youth vanish into an aimless existence.

Tunisian director Nacer Khemir’s ‘Al-Haimoune’ or ‘Wanderers of the Desert’ perfectly captures the soul of the Arab World pre-revolution. Not in detailed exegesis, but as a broad metaphor for homelessness. A representative of the national state inspires confidence nor inspiration. The past offers a mere labyrinth of illusion, fairy tales, and unsubstantiated longing. The village itself, ruins of beautiful courtyards and crumbling arabesque walls, are reminiscent of so many abandoned villages formerly inhabited by Jews, the archetypal wanderers of the desert whose exile ended half a century ago but only in name, and not without displacing another people.

Whence from here? As the era of oil draws to a close, so must the Middle East’s subservience to the West that actually began long before the discovery of crude. The ballot box can only be the start of the end of wandering. Both Arabs and Jews have a long road ahead crafting a new symbiotic identity. Out of the desert and into a modernity that is not premised on the sword.

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Filed under Arab Spring, end of oil, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Palestine, Tunisia

Salafists R us

Make that; salafist! Even as I write this my faithful WordPress spelling minder suggests I write ‘falsify’ in stead. As in; they are out to make you believe muhammadan fruitcakes are taking over the whole goddamn place. Your place or my place? From Sinai to the shittier neighborhoods of Brussels. In Egypt they are the ghosts of the tortured let out the box after the demise of Hosni -at least he was our kind of dictator- Mubarak. Disappointed in the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fast becoming a Muslim-Democrat version of Angela Merkel’s CDU, salafists seem to espouse ideas about women comparable to the American Republican Party.

In Belgium, salafists are called Sharia for Belgium, and are represented by a wheeler-dealer car mechanic with a penchant for mixing a thick Antwerp accent with Koranic catch phrases. In one memorable Youtube video the bearded, long-robed clown stood in front of the Atomium, a fifty year-old building that consists of nine giant aluminum balls connected by stiff rods, calling it un-islamic and hoping, in sh’Allah, it would some day crumble spontaneously. Belgians; Christian, Muslim, and non-believer alike all had a good chuckle about that. And by chuckle I mean, irresponsible politicians facing municipal elections later in the year lined up to call for the zealot’s expulsion to a country his parents were born in shortly after World War II. Special laws were mulled to, well, out-law Sharia for Belgium and the kind of burlesque exaggerations a Flemish party representing twenty-five percent of voters gets away with every day.

Salafism is a problem indeed. Every country has them in some or other manifestation. With the good comes the bad they say, and Egypt’s going through some bad shit right now. They; the country, its democrats, women, middle class, poor and unemployed, its youth will deal with these newly-unleashed conservative forces or be consumed by them. Europe has a pretty good idea of what that looks like, however much it chooses to forget. Salafists ‘r us, bearded, with a little mustache, or suited up like, say, the CEO of FN Herstal.

In ‘Sinai’, what appears to be an attack by religious wackos is exactly that, or rather, something else entirely. 

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Belgium, Brussels, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes

A chard of Um Kalthoum..

A chard of Um Kalthoum flies across the water, supplanted in a heartbeat by the noise of traffic. Chaos reigns out here, more than ever. Unease, contention, leaflets. This experiment, this fad of democracy is getting out of hand. Doomed from the outset. Didn’t they see it coming? Right when the old man was sent packing, may God have mercy on his soul. So predictable. What’s fair about elections in the end? Money can buy you an office, but not the acumen or charisma, yes, the brutality required to hold on to it. They knew the Brotherhood would ride it home, hands down. And now what? Things haven’t exactly come close to improving, and when things are as bad as they are now, ‘equal’ equals ‘worse’.

Colonel Gamal Deir Shams (Sinai, chapter 6)

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes