Wednesday, 17 August 2011

shocked out of silence

I haven't blogged for months, being busy with other things, but these riots and the government reaction shock me into writing. The hoodies clearly see themselves as at war with society and with the police in particular; the last thing we should do is declare war on them with rushed court hearings disproportionate sentences and talk of water cannon and rubber bullets. Extreme action will provoke extreme reaction.

The disaffection of many young people is the result of thirty years of market-driven politics, with school playing fields sold to developers, cuts to funds for youth clubs, discrimination against single mothers and so on. We are constantly incited by advertising to want more and more material goods, yet many young people are poorly educated and have poor prospects. At the same time they hear stories of billionaire bankers, politicians fiddling their expenses and police selling stories to newspapers.

In the 1950s and 60s the tax rate for high earners was 90% on both sides of the Atlantic, and investment in schools, technical colleges and universities was improving the lot of the relatively poor. Now we are becoming a caste-ridden society, with the 7% whose parents can afford school fees taking command again. Our old-Etonian Prime Minister declares war on hoodies - just what they want!

Saturday, 19 March 2011


Libya was the nomadic gap between the civilizations of Egypt and Tunis. Until it was invaded by Italy and subsequently made into an oil kingdom, it was a purely tribal society, and the quarrel between Tripoli and Banghazi is the return of an ancient feud. For Westerners to get mixed up in it is horribly dangerous.

There is no denying that Gaddafi is a criminal lunatic, but much of the danger is the result of Blair's insane decision in 2003 that he was a friend of the West, to be courted and supplied with arms. Now Britain, France and America are committed to stopping the killing by remote control from the sky. Talk of 'pinpoint strikes' is wishful thinking; without guidance from the ground, rockets and bombs are blunt instruments. The strangest thing is that Russia and China signed up to this, given their own record of killing civilians; did they calculate that those who are already being referred to as 'the allies' would humiliate themselves by getting bogged down in tribal politics?

The best thing for Libya would be for the East to be handed to Egypt and the West to Tunis. I would also give eastern Algeria to Tunisia and the West to Morocco. The other tribal kingdoms would also be attached to ancient centres of civilization. To complete the job of reorganizing the Middle East, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon and Transjordan would be returned to Greater Syria, which would also take charge of the Hejaz with Mecca and Medina... Daydreams! But why should we all go on suffering for the foolish decisions taken at the end of World War I?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011


Don't be convinced by these experts who keep telling us that the nuclear breakdown in Japan "can't possibly become as bad as Chernobyl". They are cooling the stricken reactors with seawater, but everybody knows that if you evaporate seawater you are left with salt, so what happens when the pressure vessel is full of salt (melting point about 800 Celsius)? I doubt whether anybody knows the answer; the experiment has never been tried.

The amazing thing is that a nuclear energy plant was built at all in an area subject to earthquake and tsunami. It would be interesting to know what the experts said at the time the site was selected. Did they reassure the public that the safety systems were so good that failure was virtually impossible? Did they even feel it was necessary to tell the public anything?

The Japanese plant was run by a private company, so decisions were presumably governed by considerations of profit. This seems to be one more case that justifies public ownership of power generation. Free-marketeers argue for competition, but there can be no real competition when there is only one mains cable per household. You end up with the electric companies selling gas and the gas companies selling electricity and all trying to poach each other's customers with promises of short-term savings, and all that to maximize shareholders' dividends.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Sunni and Shia

Almost every media report on uprisings in Arab countries includes an obligatory discussion of whether Islamic extremists will take over. This is prompted by memories of what happened in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and under the Taliban in Afghanistan - neither of them Arab countries. However, Iran is overwhelmingly Shia, and what happened in Afghanistan was conquest, not popular revolution, helped by the West's earlier aid to the mujahidin (including bin Laden).

There is good reason to suppose that Egypt will not be taken over by anything resembling the regimes in Iran or Afghanistan. The great majority of Egyptians - like the majority of Muslims in the world, follow Sunni Islam, which arose out of events in the 7th century C.E. A civil war had sprung up between the Party (the Shia) of Ali, who believed that only he and his descendants had the right to head the Muslim State, and the majority, who said it was better for Muslims to tolerate a bad ruler than to fight each other. Sunni Islam developed into a broad and tolerant civilization, with competition between various schools of thought and practice. The Shia split into rival movements following different descendants of Ali, fighting against each other as often as against Sunnis.

The tolerant Sunni tradition continued until the 20th century, when an extremist faction, the Wahhabis, began to make inroads. This was a utopian revivalist movement that had been confined to the Arabian desert. Their fortunes changed when the collapse of Ottoman power and the destruction of the Hejaz Railway by Lawrence allowed them to take control of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina with consequent rise in prestige. At the same time, their Saudi Kingdom came into possession of fabulous oil wealth, enabling them to open Wahhabi schools in many countries and to flood the Muslim world with literature and now DVDs advocating a militant and intolerant view. The evidence is that, although they have excited a fanatical minority, the majority of Sunni Muslims are loyal to their open-minded and tolerant traditions. I do not believe that a democratically chosen government in any Sunni country would be dominated by Wahhabis.

Monday, 14 February 2011

What a contrast between Tienanmen Square 1989 and Tahrir Square 2011! It was the army that made the difference. Deng Xiaoping had loyal units that were willing to roll tanks over demonstrators, Mubarak and his Vice President had only their police and a few horses and camels.

What a pity that history is no longer properly taught in the West! Nobody seems to recall Colonel Urabi's Revolution of 1881-82, which was ended by a British invasion to re-establish colonial rule. Nor do people speak of Saad Zaghloul's Revolution of 1919, which led to the British abandoning its protectorate and allowing free elections, which were won by the Wafd Party. There followed nearly twenty years of parliamentary democracy, but the monarchy that Britain had put in place led to a regime of nepotism and corruption, ended by Colonel Nasser's popular coup in 1952. Nasser was at heart a Westernizer, and his inspiration was the British Welfare State. But his pan-Arab nationalism was unacceptable to Israel, and he never recovered from defeat in the 1967 war.

So Egyptians have been periodically in revolt for 130 years against Western attempts to control their country. The big question is whether this time they will succeed. Already America has demanded that the peace treaty with Israel be respected, although Israel has long since ignored its terms. Nasser's successor, Anwar el-Sadate was assassinated in 1981, essentially because he had betrayed the Palestinians by leaving their interests out of account. Will Egypt now lift the Siege of Gaza? Will it now continue 'normal' relations with Israel despite the continuing colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Those are important things to watch.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Wrong Undone

Yesterday, 7th February, Khartoum confirmed that Southern Sudan has voted 98% for independence from the North. If it holds, this will be spectacular - the first time sinc Czechoslovakia that a country has been peacefully divided by majority vote, and the very first time in one of Europe's old colonies. What is most significant of all is that the Muslim rulers of the North appear to be accepting the result of the vote - an example to all other governments in the Arab world.

The usual pattern has been that an autocratic regime has allowed a vote, has not liked the result and has cracked down mercilessly. This is what the Shah did in Iran in 1953, overthrowing the elected government of Mossadegh with the backing of the West, to undo the nationalization of tghe oil companies. It is what the army did in Algeria in 1992, with the backing of the West, cancelling the elections half way through because Muslim parties were winning. It is what Israel did in 2006, with the backing of the West, when Hamas won the majority of the seats in an election under UN auspices. And of course the Arab World is not alone; for example there was Chile 1n 1974.

In 1953 the motive of the West was pure greed - to get back the Western oil companies. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, American policy has been dominated by paranoid fear of Islam (which did not prevent them from funding the fundamantalist attack on the Soviets in Afghanistan; Bin Laden was a CIA agent!!!). Now they are desperately hoping that Mubarek can rig the elections in Egypt in the next few months. So why should the West not be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood? That will need another blog.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Historic Week?

No, I don't mean Egypt. Something else has just happened - in Britain: in the space of four days two different television channels have broadcast programmes about Palestine. On Thursday 3rd February on BBC2 Louis Theroux interviewed 'Ultra Zionists' on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and on Sunday 6th Channel Four started a four-part drama, 'The Promise'.

The 'Ultra Zionists' were almost all very mainstream settlers carrying out Israeli Government policy. Theroux cleverly got them to talk while subtly suggesting that their actions might be illegal and inhumane. Only one man lost his temper, when asked whether the olive trees some settlers had set fire to belonged to Palestinians.

'The Promise' is about the experience of a British student, Erin, visiting the family of her friend who has dual Anglo-Israeli nationality and who is starting her two years military service. The friend's family are very British, living in a lovely villa by the sea. The father is a retired general and a well known liberal - but not liberal enough for the friend's brother, who is a peace-activist. He takes Erin to the West Bank to meet some Palestinians and hear their grievances.

The story is given depth by the diary of Erin's grandfather, which she has brought with her to read. He was s sergeant, present at the liberation of Belsen in 1945, and he then served in Palestine in the last years of British rule. His squadren is at war with Zionist activists, and he is recruited to spy for them by the daughter of one of the leaders.

'The Promise' sets out to present a balanced picture, though so far we haven't met any present-day Zionists. Some of the detail struck me as inaccurate; the Israeli check-point was between Israel and the West Bank, so it did not give any idea of the horrors of the check-points inside the Occupied Territories. And there is a suicide bombing - something that is now extremely rare. Anyway, I shall follow the remaining three episodes with great interest.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Arab Upheavals Part 2

Ignorance of the Arab world is widespread in Europe and America. Many people think that Iran is an Arab country, although its language, Farsi, is not Semitic at all but is more closely related to Indo-European languages such as Greek or Russian. The southward extent of Arabic in Africa is blurred. It is the language of North Sudan and is the co-official language of Mauritania and Tchad. It was at one time declared the official language of Somalia before that country descended into chaos.

The word 'Arab' in classical Arabic meant primarily Bedouin or desert Arab. In modern times its use has been extended to Arabic-speaking people in general, but the people of the settled areas have always regarded the nomads with suspicion and hostility. The Koran itself has harsh words about them. Paradoxically, an 18th century religious revival movement, Wahhabism, started in the desert. After Lawrence of Arabia had blown up the Hijaz Railway, which was built to protect Medina and Mecca, they were succcessfully taken over by King Saud's Wahhabis. With control of the Holy Cities combined with fabulous oil wealth, the Saudis achieved totally disproportionate influence all over the Islamic world.

When the Britisn and French found it too expensive to continue direct colonial rule over Arab countries, they tried to leave behind British-style constitutional monarchies and French-style republics, but one by one they were overthrown by military coups. Most governments in the region have for many years been military dictatorships. This suited the West; if they could buy the dictator they could control the country - and any oil. That is the regime that now teeters on the brink. The generals will not easily cede their powers - and their wealth. Watch carefully what America does now!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Arab upheavals

Having lost one of my most loyal followers, I have not blogged for a month, but I must break my silence for what is happening in the Arab world. It is at least 18 years since I was last in Egypt and about 30 since my last stay in Tunisia, but after a total of eight years living in Arab countries I can't help feeling deeply involved in what is happening.

Compared with India, which has more than a dozen major languages, several very different religions and a range of climates from tropical to Himalayan, the Arab world is very homogeneous. Even going from one end to the other, say Morocco to Oman, an Arabic-speaking person quickly picks up the local dialect. The religions that coexisted there - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Bahai - saw the world in simiar terms and lived together under a Pax Islamica that saw few violent conflicts.

When nationalism spread out from Europe, the Arabic-speaking world was one of the most obvious candidates to develop a nation-state or a close-knit federation. Egypt and Syria in the late 19th and early 20th century produced many thinkers who laid the intellectual foundations for a secular society. But they reckoned without oil and the greed of the Europeans and Americans. North Africa and Egypt had already been colonized, and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs found themselves divided between about twenty different territories. When they obtained a semblance of independence it was under authoritarian rulers propped up by the former colonial powers and by America, who siphoned off most of the oil wealth.

Egypt and Iraq operated a parliamentary system for several decades, but the corruption of the rulers and interference by the West led to revolutions in Egypt and Iraq inspired again by Western models, but this time totalitarian ones. When these too failed to deliver prosperity, the whole enterprise of imitating Europe and America became suspect. Some people turned away from secular ideas and dreamed of finding solutions in a return to a great and half imaginary Islamic past. They were helped by money form Saudi Arabia, which had fallen into the hands of an extremist sect, which maintained itself in power with the help of the West.

The wedge that maintains the whole rickety structure is Israel, dividing what is otherwise a continuous Arab space and occupying the third holiest city of Islam. The West's unqualified support for Israel requires the status quo to be frozen with its immense injustices, its torture regimes, the squandering of oil wealth in preposterous tumours like Dubai while the vast majority of Arabs live in grinding poverty. That is the pressure cooker that is now beginning to explode.