Friday 25 February 2011

25 February 2011

Two weeks ago today, Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president. I wrote then: “The message being echoed right across the Arab world is simply this: No matter how long a leader has been in power, no matter how pervasive his security apparatus, no matter how terrifying his dungeons, if enough people take to the streets, he can be toppled.”

That’s certainly what a lot of people in Libya believed. But as I write these words, mid-afternoon on Friday, it seems that forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi are determined to prove them wrong.

Here’s a taste of some of the messages I’ve been reading on Twitter over just the past few minutes (I should make it clear that I have no way of corroborating them, or vouching for their accuracy, but Twitter has now become a major source of information from Libya while foreign journalists are prevented from accessing areas under the control of the government).

“ohhhhh my god 2 pepole where hoted (holed?) in the head god help us.”
“progaddafi preventing protesters to reach the green square, they are everywhere.”
“progaddafi are shooting the protesters on the spot in many areas in tripoli: fashloum, soug aljoumaa.”
“there is a massacre happening right now in soug aljoumaa NOW.”
“bomb guys i heard bomb alot of gun shot please help.”
“a friend died now, his father answered me crying. i'm trying to control myself.”

By the time you read this, the picture may be clearer. We may also know more about what's been happening today in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Even in Saudi Arabia, there seem to be the first stirrings of what may, or may not, build into another protest movement.

It’s still far too early to assess what this unprecedented wave of popular revolts in the Arab world will mean in the long term. (We’ll make a first attempt in a special 60-minute edition of The World Tonight to be broadcast on 11 March.) But for now the question that intrigues me is this: if a prerequisite of revolution is the absence of fear, when did that fear vanish – and, just as importantly, why?

Well, how about this for an explanation: observing the courage of others encourages others to have more courage. A crowd in one city today leads to more crowds in more cities tomorrow. In other words, if the disaffected, unemployed young in one Arab country see what their counterparts elsewhere can achieve, they’re more likely to be able to shrug off their own fears.

From Tunisia to Egypt. From Egypt to Yemen, and Bahrain, Algeria – and Libya. And surely it’s undeniable that the overcoming of all that fear has been helped immeasurably by social network sites like Facebook and Twitter.
A protester with a mobile phone can send out words, pictures and videos in real time. TV news bulletins, radio news programmes, newspapers and bloggers all pick them up, sift them, retransmit them.

Of course, there were popular uprisings, revolts and revolutions long before the first Tweeter ever tweeted. In 1989, it was in part the power of TV pictures that blew the flames of anti-Communism across central and eastern Europe. But in 2011, the TV pictures are as likely to have come from a protester’s mobile phone as through the lens of a professional camera operator.

A word of caution, however: what follows a popular uprising isn’t always better than what went before. Decades of political repression can’t be transmogrified overnight into a model of liberal democracy. If that is true in Tunisia or Egypt, it is a hundred times more true in Libya. Yes, in Latin America, and east Asia, they successfully made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. In Somalia, on the other hand … well, I don’t need to spell it out.

Just a quick word about Twitter: as you’ll have gathered, I’ve signed up. If you’re there too, do come and find me.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

18 February 2011

TURIN -- As you may have heard on the programme, I’ve been travelling in Italy this week, gauging the mood of the nation as the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, prepares to face charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of office, and as Italians mark the 150th anniversary of the country’s unification.

I’ll be on air tonight from Turin with the third of my reports, and I’ve also written a piece for From Our Own Correspondent, to be broadcast tomorrow at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4.

I thought you might like a taster of what I’ll be saying:

When I lived in Italy more than 30 years ago, the words that most people associated with the country were mafia, spaghetti, Fiat and Michelangelo, not necessarily in that order. Now, I’ve been back, and I found the country confused, depressed and uncertain.

I’ve been travelling from the faded, crime-ridden city of Naples in the south to the industrial and commercial hubs of Milan and Turin in the north, and at each stop I asked the people I met: “If I say Italy to you, what do you think of?”

“Cheats,” said a young jazz musician in the historic university city of Padua, where once Galileo was a student. “Complicated”, said a social worker as we looked out over the Bay of Naples towards Mount Vesuvius.

A few days ago, I was in the pretty port city of Gaeta, just over half way between Rome and Naples. It was where the last, great pre-unification battle was fought, where the Bourbon royal family took refuge after Naples fell to the armies of the North. Gaeta suffered a terrible siege, tens of thousands of people died. To mark the anniversary, the townspeople paraded through the streets, many of them dressed in period costume. It wasn’t so much a celebration of unity as a demonstration that even after 150 years, a distinctly, and defiantly, southern identity still survives.

Still, despite its history, Italy is now one nation, and I’m not sure it’s really any less united than, say, Spain, with its Basques and Catalans; France, with its Bretons and Corsicans; even the United Kingdom, with its Scots, its Welsh and its northern Irish.

These days, Italians all watch the same TV programmes – most of them on networks owned or controlled by Mr Berlusconi – and at least in part because of the influence of television, they do now speak the same language. That wasn’t the case even 50 or 60 years ago, when most Italians spoke regional dialects rather than the Italian of the literary giants like Dante or Mazzini.

The young musician I met in Padua told me that he feels he’s visiting a foreign country when he goes south to Naples. And this is a man who spent many years living in New York. Naples is crumbling, it’s dirty, the people drive like maniacs – so to a northern Italian, who’d feel perfectly comfortable in Berlin or Vienna, going south is a bit like ending up in Cairo or Beirut.

As for Mr Berlusconi, he’s as defiant as ever. He insists he won’t be resigning ahead of his trial in April – and in a strange way, he is himself now a unifying influence. He’s originally from Milan, which is where his business empire is based, and where his bunga bunga parties were held, but he has as much political support in the south as in the north.

And when hundreds of thousands of Italians took to the streets last weekend to demonstrate their opposition to him, they filled the piazzas in dozens of towns and cities the length and breadth of the country.

The word on their placards was “Basta” – enough. The fate of their prime minister – and perhaps even the fate of their country – now lies in the hands of the judges.

By the way, The World Tonight can now be downloaded free of charge as a podcast, which means that if you happen to miss a programme, you can now catch up on you way to work the next morning. Just go to

Friday 11 February 2011

11 February 2011

You’ll understand, I hope, why this week’s newsletter is later than usual – it seemed to me it would be better to wait until we knew what happened today in Cairo. And it was.

No, I’m not psychic. I couldn’t be sure that President Mubarak would finally choose to resign today – but when I went home after last night’s programme, it was clear that today would bring fresh drama.

Did I say Mubarak “chose to resign”? I wonder. We will learn more over the coming days about exactly what happened behind the scenes in Cairo over the past 48 hours – but it’s already possible to look at the available evidence and draw some tentative conclusions.

Question 1: Was it a victory for a popular revolution, or a military coup d’etat? Answer: almost certainly, a bit of both.

Question 2: Is Egypt now set on a path towards genuine democracy and free and fair elections? Answer: it’s far too soon to say, but personally, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Question 3: Will today’s events have an impact elsewhere in the Arab world? Answer: categorically yes, a massive impact. Tunisia could perhaps be written off as a small and relatively insignificant country. But Egypt? The most populous nation in the Arab world? The acknowledged Arab super-power?

So what might have happened yesterday and today? I have no inside knowledge, but here’s my best guess. Yesterday, when the army high command issued their “Communique No. 1”, they thought they had secured Mubarak’s agreement to resign and hand over power to them.

That’s why they told the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square: “All your demands will be met.”

But Vice-President Omar Suleiman, perhaps with the support of the presidential guard and other elements of the security apparatus, faced the military chiefs down. There were even rumours that Mubarak had already recorded a resignation announcement but that the vice-president ordered that it should not be broadcast.

Instead, in what everyone seems to agree was a disastrous miscalculation, Mubarak went on TV and said he was not resigning after all but would hand over powers to – guess who? – vice-president Suleiman.

In other words, what happened yesterday was in effect an attempted coup d’etat by the military – and it failed.

Today, on the other hand, it seems to have succeeded. Mubarak has gone, and now the military are in charge. Where that leaves the vice-president isn’t clear. Not best pleased, is my guess.

But do today’s events mark, in the words of the Nobel peace prize winner and leading opposition figure Mohammed el Baradei: “the liberation of the Egyptian people”?

Is military rule compatible with liberation? It depends, doesn’t it, on what happens next.

For now, though, the message being echoed right across the Arab world is simply this: No matter how long a leader has been in power, no matter how pervasive his security apparatus, no matter how terrifying his dungeons, if enough people take to the streets, he can be toppled.

The coming weeks will give us some idea of whether there are likely to be more Tunisias, more Egypts. They will also begin to clarify whether the Egyptian people really are about to be given a genuine opportunity to choose how, and by whom, they wish to be ruled.

I know that the parallels with Europe in 1989 can be overdone and that they are far from exact. But I have a strong suspicion that the over-riding emotion in Cairo tonight is very similar to what people felt in Berlin, Prague, Bucharest and the other capitals of eastern and central Europe as the Moscow-backed Communist regimes crumbled one after another.

Live for the moment. Celebrate the achievement. We’ll worry about the future tomorrow. There may be trouble ahead; some of them may even live to regret what happened today. But I don’t think many of the protesters are bothering with that now.

Friday 4 February 2011

4 February 2011

Question: what links the Wizard of Oz, the 9/11 attacks, and events this week in Egypt?

Bear with me; I haven’t gone mad. But I have been trying to make sense of the unprecedented scenes on the streets of Cairo – and I think I may be seeing the beginnings of an intelligible picture.

First, the Wizard of Oz. If you’ve seen the film – of course, you’ve seen the film – you’ll remember the scene near the end when Dorothy and her companions finally get to see the fearsome Wizard. He’s just an ordinary little fella, with a much-amplified voice. Not so scary – or powerful – after all.

As for 9/11, to many millions of people around the world, especially those in countries whose governments were in thrall to, or beholden to, the mighty superpower that is (was?) the United States, what the attacks demonstrated was that Uncle Sam was unexpectedly vulnerable. What’s more, he was smitten by a group of Arabs.

Then came Afghanistan, and Iraq. Again, Uncle Sam – or, if you prefer, the Wizard of Oz – was revealed to be a great deal less mighty than he seemed.

Remember 1989, the year when the Soviet empire in Eastern and central Europe collapsed domino-like, in country after country? Once the power of Moscow was seen to be crumbling, suddenly fear gave way to courage, and the rest is history.

Which brings us to Egypt, via Tunisia. I’m not suggesting that the uprisings against long-established pro-Western governments were due solely to a perception that their Washington backers were no longer as powerful as they once were – but it is more than possible that this could be an important factor.

A government that owes its strength at least in part to the fact that it is backed by the Wizard of Oz is not as invulnerable as it may once have seemed – which may be why in Tunis and Cairo it’s been the people out on the streets who look as if they have the upper hand.

As I noted in this newsletter just three weeks ago, Arab leaders have a habit of sticking around. I cited Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (41 years in power); President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen (33 years); and yes, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt (30 years). Now, under pressure from the streets, Saleh and Mubarak have both pledged to stand down at the next election, and of course President Ben Ali of Tunisia is now ex-President Ben Ali and is settling into exile in Saudi Arabia.

So is democracy on the march through the Arab world? After Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, east Asia, all of which have embraced various forms of democracy over the past 30 years, is it now, at last, the Arabs’ turn?

It’s still too soon to tell. I’m keeping a close eye on the Egyptian army and the newly-appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman, formerly the country’s hugely powerful head of intelligence, long regarded as the US’s point man in Cairo – and chillingly described by one US commentator this week as “a charitable man, friendly … he tortures only people that he doesn't know."

I’m also intrigued by the reaction from Turkey, a country that knows full well what it’s like having an army playing a major political role behind the scenes. This was the message from the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to President Mubarak this week: “I say that you must listen, and we must listen, to the people’s outcry, to their extremely humanitarian demands. Meet the people’s desire for change with no hesitation. I am saying this clearly: You must be the first to take a step for Egypt’s peace, security, and stability … Take steps that will satisfy the people.”

So could a post-Mubarak Egypt become an Arab Turkey – mildly Islamist, but broadly pluralist? Or will strongman autocrat Mubarak make way for strongman autocrat Suleiman?

I think I know which of the alternatives the US and Israel would prefer – but how about those thousands of people out on the streets? After all, the 1989 revolutions in Europe didn’t lead overnight to a new generation of non-Communist leaders – so it may be a while before a clearer picture of Egypt’s future begins to emerge.

For now, the demands from the streets are clear enough: Mubarak must go, his regime must fall, the corrupt must be punished and jobs must be found for the unemployed. But there are still plenty of people whose physical and financial security depend on the regime’s survival: you don’t run an autocracy for 30 years without building up a pretty impressive client base. Besides, many people fear the uncertainty, confusion and potential dangers that could follow a precipitate presidential resignation.

So don’t assume that a massive change is on the way. Just because the Wizard of Oz says there must be change, doesn’t mean that change will follow. After all, when Dorothy’s dog Toto pulled back that curtain revealing the wizard’s powerlessness, we saw him pulling at all sorts of levers to no great effect.

Yes, the people of Cairo are still out on the streets, but it’s not over yet.

Thursday 3 February 2011

28 January 2011

Here, hold my hand. I want to take you to meet some of the world’s richest and most powerful men. (And yes, sorry, they are nearly all men.)

We’re off to Davos in Switzerland, for the annual jamboree of global movers and shakers known as the World Economic Forum. So you’ll need your passport, of course, some nice smart clothes for all those evening parties – oh yes, and some cash.

You won’t want to go as a mere journalist, I know, because that won’t get you anywhere near the inner sanctums (sancta?) where the real money is. So let’s enrol you as a fully paid-up participant.

Did I say fully paid-up? Hang on to your credit card, because here come the numbers. Basic membership fee, entitling you to one invitation: 50,000 Swiss francs (£33,000, or $53,000). Cost of one ticket, 18,000 Swiss francs, plus tax: so total cost of membership plus ticket: £44,000, or $71,000.

Mind you, I should warn you: if you want to get in to the really interesting sessions, the ones where the really important people are, you’ll need to enrol as an “Industry Associate”. That’ll cost £86,000, or $137,000. And yes, you’ll still need to buy a ticket as well.

Ah, you want to bring a friend. Sorry, mere Industry Associates aren’t allowed any friends. You’ll need to be an Industry Partner, which costs a bit more: £164,000, or $263,000. Yes, you guessed: you’ll both need to buy tickets as well.

I could go on, but you’ll have got the idea by now. How do I know all this? Not, needless to say, because I’ve become a member of the Global Club of Movers and Shakers, but because the New York Times very kindly spelt it all out this week in a fascinating article.

So here’s the question: what on earth do they do with all that cash? Well, I did what any self-respecting hack would do: I had a look at their latest annual report. In 2009/10, total revenue: 143 million Swiss francs (£95 million, or $150 million). Total expenditure: about the same, of which about one-fifth went on office costs, 40 per cent on staff, and the rest on “activity-related” costs.

Perhaps none of this matters very much. The people who go to Davos are very rich people who represent very rich corporations. (I assume the politicians get a special rate …) What they do with their cash is their business.

Incidentally, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times had some useful Davos tips the other day if you do decide to go: they include wear sensible shoes, because of all the trudging through the slush; and end the evening at a party with loud music, because by the end of the day, you’ll have had enough of earnest discussions.

Me? No, I’m not there – not my thing, I’m afraid. But you get a flavour of it from Rachman’s note about a session he went to on global security, just as anti-government protesters were out in their thousands on the streets of Cairo.

“One of the participants was Amre Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League and a former foreign minister of Egypt. The bad news is that I am not allowed to report what Moussa said. The good news is that he actually said nothing worth reporting, so it’s no great loss.”

21 January 2011

I imagine you would agree that no government takes a decision that’s more important than going to war.

In which case, presumably, it follows that understanding how and why such a decision is taken is pretty important as well.

That’s why – for those of us interested in the machinery of government – the Iraq war inquiry being conducted by Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues provides such a fascinating insight.

This morning, Tony Blair was back, almost exactly a year after his first appearance at the inquiry. There were no fireworks, but there was a significant – and an uncharacteristic – admission.

Yes, said Mr Blair, in retrospect, it might have been better if the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had been more closely involved in the process of negotiating the UN security council resolution which either did (according to Tony Blair and, eventually, Lord Goldsmith) provide legal cover for the Iraq invasion, or (according to critics of the war and many international lawyers) did not.

The point is a simple one: Tony Blair knew that all his commitments to President Bush in the months leading up to the invasion would be worthless if the Attorney General formally advised the Cabinet that military action would be illegal. He also knew that, almost up till the last moment, that was the Attorney General’s view.

It would have been much easier, Mr Blair suggested, if Lord Goldsmith had been present at discussions about the language of Resolution 1441, because that way he would have seen how deliberately it was chosen in order to offer legal cover for military action as a last resort. (Whether that is indeed what the Attorney General would have concluded, we shall never know.)

We already know from innumerable accounts of the Blair years that he favoured an informal style of government. It didn’t go down too well with civil servants, nor does it, it seems, with members of the Chilcot inquiry. They want to see minutes of meetings, and records of conversations.

In a nutshell, Tony Blair’s approach can be summed up like this: I know what needs to be done, so my task is simply to persuade everyone else – and then do it.

He was not, as prime minister, nor is he now, the sort of man who says: We seem to have a problem, so I’m going to sit down with all my Cabinet colleagues and see if we can work out what to do about it.

I remember interviewing him in Downing Street in December 2002, three months before the Iraq invasion. I asked him if it bothered him that his critics were calling him “Bush’s poodle.”

“Oh, it’s much worse than that,” he said. “I agree with him.”

His problem was that many of his Cabinet colleagues, many Labour MPs, and many British voters, were much less sure. So throughout the pre-invasion period, the question he was asking himself was not: What is the right thing to do? It was: How can I persuade everyone else that what I’m doing is the right thing to do?

You may think that certainty in a political leader is no bad thing. Or you may think that in a Cabinet-system of government, with a civil service offering professional advice, certainty can sometimes risk leading to bad decisions.

When the Chilcot inquiry report is published, it won’t pass judgement on whether the Iraq war was legal. (Just as well, perhaps, given that not a single member of the inquiry team is even a lawyer, let alone a judge.)

But it may well have a great deal to say about the way decisions were made. It won’t provide the sort of headlines that critics of the war are hoping for – it won’t result in Mr Blair being dragged off to The Hague in handcuffs – but I’m pretty confident that it’ll make riveting reading for anyone who’s interested in how we are governed.

14 January 2011

How much do you know about Tunisia? Small country, North Africa, nice tourist beaches? Oh yes, and Carthage, of course, three millennia old and definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Or, alternatively, “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems ... Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising ... Anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.”

Take a bow, former US ambassador Robert Godec, who got it pretty much dead right in a cable to Washington 18 months ago, now released by WikiLeaks.

Last night (Thursday), President Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali tried to put a stop to a month of street protests against his 23-year rule. Food prices reduced, security forces ordered not to use live ammunition, a pledge to stand down in three years’ time.

Will it be enough? The next few days will be critical, and it’s not only the people of Tunisia who are watching anxiously.

Arab leaders have a habit of sticking around. As Blake Hounshell pointed out in Foreign Policy this week, Muammar Gaddafi has been in charge in Libya for 41 years; President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for 33 years; Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for 30 years. You could add the Assads, father and son, in Syria, 40 years.

Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, east Asia – all of them, over the past 30 years, have seen a flowering of democracy. But not the Arab world, where, with the partial exceptions of Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, democracy is conspicuous only by its absence.

Just yesterday, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in Qatar, delivering some home truths to Arab leaders: “Across the region, one in five young people is unemployed. And in some places, the percentage is far more. While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open.”

She didn’t mention anyone by name – she didn’t need to – but the message could hardly have been clearer: “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever. If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.”

To which some in the Arab world will reply: Huh! Who’s been propping up these sclerotic regimes all these years? Who’s been backing Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the al-Sauds in Saudi Arabia – and yes, Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali in Tunisia? As ambassador Robert Godec reported in his WikiLeaks cable, there’s been substantially increased US military assistance to Tunisia in recent years, as well as joint counter-terrorism programmes and strengthened commercial ties.

So Arab leaders are nervously watching events in Tunisia, just as they’re watching the slide towards a new political crisis in Lebanon, a country that all too often can act as a touch-paper throughout the Arab world.

The government in Beirut has collapsed, and tensions are rising rapidly ahead of the expected publication of a report by a UN-backed special tribunal which has been investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Hizbollah thinks the tribunal will name some of its members as likely culprits, and is gearing up for a major row.

It all adds up to a worryingly combustible mix. Stir together high unemployment, especially among the young, corrupt government, repression, jihadi ideology, oil wealth – no wonder Hillary Clinton is concerned. And she’s not alone.