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Friday, 15 June 2012

15 June 2012

I have a suggestion for you: take a look at a calendar and make a note of Sunday's date. June 17, 2012 -- it may just be a date that goes down in history.

A date like November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin wall was cracked open. Or June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Europe slid into war. Or perhaps September 11, 2001, when two hijacked airliners smashed into the Twin Towers in New York (and a third crashed into the Pentagon in Washington).

On each of those dates, a single event changed the world. On Sunday, we'll have two events to choose from. And that's not something that happens very often.

Elections in Greece -- and elections in Egypt. Rarely have so many voters had so much power to influence so much. (And my apologies to voters in France, who will also be doing their civic duty on Sunday -- but frankly, the make-up of the Assemblée Nationale in Paris pales into insignificance when compared with what'll be happening in Greece and Egypt.)

So let's take Greece first. You'll remember that their last election in April did not turn out well -- no party or combination of parties could form a government, so they decided to have another go.

This time round, it's quite possible that the left-wing Syriza bloc will emerge as the largest single group in parliament  -- and if they do, given their pledge effectively to rip up the euro bail-out deal which has plunged the country into austerity, you can expect a pretty dramatic reaction from the financial markets come Monday morning.

Where that will leave the euro is anyone's guess. Spain is already in deep trouble -- and there's now talk of another bail-out being needed to prop up Spanish government debt, on top of last weekend's deal that was designed to save the Spanish banking system.

Cyprus is in big trouble too, but given how little it is, no one seems much bothered about that. What they are bothered about is Italy, which has a deeply problematic debt-to-GDP ratio and where the government's borrowing costs are up again at record levels. There's a G20 summit in Mexico this weekend, and an EU summit in Brussels due at the end of the month. No prizes for guessing what they'll be talking about.

If you read the musings of economic commentators as I do (believe me, I don't do it for fun), you'll know that even the most cautious of them are now sounding terrifyingly doom-laden.

Like this one: "For the last three years Europe's politicians have promised to 'do whatever it takes' to save the euro. It is now clear that this promise is beyond their capacity to keep -- because it requires steps that are unacceptable to their electorates. No one knows for sure how long they can delay the complete collapse of the euro, perhaps months or even several more years, but we are moving steadily to an ugly end."

So will the Greek election on Sunday sound the death knell for the euro? It might.

But that's not all that Sunday could have in store for us. In Egypt, voters will be choosing their next president, their first since the ignominious fall of Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago. On offer: Ahmed Shafiq, a former Mubarak prime minister, described by his critics as a throwback to the old regime, or Mohamed Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections earlier this year.

On the subject of which, yesterday Egypt's supreme constitutional court annulled the parliamentary election and ruled against an application to have Ahmed Shafiq's candidacy declared illegitimate.

And the effect of that was to lead some of Egypt's already deeply worried revolutionaries -- and some leading Muslim Brotherhood officials -- to talk of a military coup. Their reasoning is that if Shafiq wins on Sunday, and if parliament is dissolved, the old guard will be back in effective control of the country.

One British official was quoted late last night as saying it looks as if "things are coming apart at the seams." And if they do come apart, if Egypt's messy, faltering, imperfect transition from autocracy degenerates into chaos, the implications for the region could be profound.

Egypt, after all, is by far the most populous of the Arab states and has long been regarded as the leader of the Arab world. That's why June 17, 2012 is as big a deal for the Arab region as the outcome of the Greek election is for Europe.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman summed it all up a couple of days ago like this: "In Europe, the supranational project did not work, and now, to a degree, Europe is falling back into individual states.

"In the Arab world, the national project did not work, so some of the Arab states are falling back onto sects, tribes, regions and clans."

Me? I'm reminded of those lines from W.B. Yeats's poem The Second Coming: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world".

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