Friday 25 November 2011

25 November 2011

I don’t suppose many people remember the thoughts of Chairman Mao any more. But there was, in my youth, one particular thought attributed to the Chinese Communist leader that was strangely popular among radical leftists who wanted to overthrow global capitalism.

It went like this: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.” (And yes, it was so long ago that I had to look it up to make sure I’d remembered it correctly.)

It’s been in my mind this week as I’ve followed the latest chapter in the Egyptian revolution, played out in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and in many other towns and cities. Those who’ve been shot at, clubbed and tear gassed will not have needed reminding that they weren’t at a dinner party, or painting a picture.

Some of them may also have recalled another of Mao’s pensées: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” And they’ve proved him wrong on that, haven’t they?

Mao was right about one thing, though: revolutions are about seizing power. And when a group without power tries to seize it from a group with power, then resistance is usually inevitable. (Some of the anti-Communist revolutions in Europe in 1989 were an exception to the rule, in that the power of the elites had atrophied to such an extent that they sometimes crumbled away offering virtually no resistance at all.)

Back in February, on the day that President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office, I asked: “Was it a victory for a popular revolution, or a military coup d'état?” And I answered: “Almost certainly, a bit of both.”

Nine months on, I think the answer still stands. But to the tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere this week, a bit of both is no longer good enough.

In February, they believed – or chose to believe – that they and the generals were on the same side. But now they are demanding that the military give up the power they inherited from Hosni Mubarak without any further delay.

Egypt is a test case on which a great deal depends. It’s true that so far, Tunisia, where this extraordinary year of Arab uprisings began, has set a pretty good example of how to manage a transition from autocracy to democracy. But Tunisia is a small and relatively insignificant Arab state. Egypt, on the other hand, is anything but.

So in Libya, and now in Yemen – and who knows, maybe one day soon in Syria as well – they are watching anxiously to see what happens next in Egypt. After all, removing a decades-old dictatorship does not automatically lead to the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy. (Somalia and Iraq are just two salutary examples of how it can all go horribly wrong.)

On Monday, barring any unexpected last-minute changes of mind, Egypt’s lengthy, multi-stage election process will get under way. More than 6,000 candidates are standing for election to a People’s Assembly, which is meant to act as a lower house of parliament and set in train a process to draw up a new constitution.

The elections are scheduled to roll on more or less non-stop until mid-January, and then – if the generals’ latest promise is to be believed – in the summer, presidential elections will be held to choose the country’s first elected post-Mubarak leader.

Do Egyptians have the patience to allow the process to proceed at this leisurely pace? Judging by the events of the past week, the answer would seem to be probably not.

But don’t forget: the crowds in Tahrir Square may have looked huge – and they were – but there are plenty of people in Egypt who desperately want the violence and the protests to end, and for whom a much more urgent priority is to get the economy moving again.

If it’s a choice between jobs and democracy, not everyone will necessarily choose democracy first.

18 November 2011

ISTANBUL -- Do you think Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, having deposed their autocratic leaders, are about to join Iran as Islamist republics?

Do you think that after elections are held (the first have already taken place in Tunisia), Islamist parties will take power and install theocratic systems of government in which Western liberal ideas of freedom and tolerance have no place?

Well, I’ve been here in Turkey for the past few days to ask if Islam, democracy and prosperity are compatible. Next week, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, will be in London for a State visit – the first by a Turkish head of state for more than 20 years – and you can be sure that his answer (and, come to that, the answer of his hijab-wearing wife) will be a very definite Yes.

Consider: since 1992, Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known here as the AKP. Its roots, and those of its leaders, are in the Islamist tradition – a far cry from the principles of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, who enshrined secularism in the country’s constitution.

Consider also that over the past decade, the Turkish economy has trebled in size. Average incomes have doubled. When I spoke to workers at Istanbul’s main bus station a couple of days ago and asked them if it’s easy to find work here, they answered Yes. There aren’t many countries these days where that happens.

So is Turkey a success story, a good democratic model for post-autocratic Arab states to follow? It depends whom you ask.

No, says former star TV presenter Banu Guven, who lost her job after objecting to a ban at her TV station on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. She says there’s growing pressure on the media, even intimidation, leading to more and more self-censorship. Not a good democratic model.

No, says former general Haldun Solmazturk, who argues that the army, which has traditionally claimed to be a guarantor of Turkish secularism, has now been marginalised to such an extent that the AKP no longer has any institutional check on its power. (But perhaps it’s relevant that the army has been responsible for the overthrow of four civilian governments in little more than 50 years.)

Yes, says novelist and cultural commentator Kaya Genc, who argues that the army should play no political role in a modern democracy, and that the AKP represents the views of the majority of Turks far more accurately than did its secular predecessors in government.

But when I met the leading Egyptian actor, film-maker and activist, Khaled Abol Naga, who has come to Istanbul for an Arab activists’ conference this weekend, he dismissed the idea that Arabs need to look to Turkey for a model. The 2011 Arab uprisings are home-grown revolutions, he said, and they need to look to no one for inspiration.

As for the army, which currently rules post-Mubarak Egypt and which is angrily condemned by pro-democracy activists for seeming in no hurry to move to a genuinely democratic form of government, he fears the military – unlike Egypt’s democracy activists – are indeed looking to Turkey as a model.

After all, if the Turkish military could, for many decades, pull the strings both behind the scenes and up on the front of the stage, why shouldn’t the military in Egypt try something similar?

And there’s one, further complicating ingredient to add to this combustible mix. As I write these words, I am looking out of the window towards the elegant splendour of the Blue Mosque and the 6th century Ayia Sofia, once the greatest church in all of Christendom, two powerful reminders of the central place Turkey (and especially this city, in its previous guise as Constantinople) used to occupy in world affairs.

For hundreds of years, the Ottoman empire dominated much of Asia, Europe and north Africa. No one is suggesting that the rulers of modern Turkey harbour similar imperial ambitions – but few doubt that the charismatic, and populist, prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enjoys his newly-won status as a global statesman.

So as the Queen welcomes President Gül to Buckingham Palace next week, she will know that he represents a nation that has earned its place as a global player. When I asked a leading AKP official if Turkey’s hour has come, he laughed and said: “I hope so.”

Friday 11 November 2011

11 November 2011

Thought for the day: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – Poet and philosopher George Santayana (The Life of Reason, 1905)

Past? What past? Well, how about 1923 for a start? That’s when Germany started printing banknotes in denominations of up to 100 trillion marks (that’s 100 followed by 12 zeroes), and there were 4.2 trillion marks to the US dollar.

Perhaps that helps explain why Germany is so set against allowing the European Central Bank to buy up shed-loads of government debt from other eurozone countries – printing money (or the modern equivalent: tapping in a few more zeroes onto a central bank balance sheet), which is what it could entail, and which is what the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have been doing, stirs up some very unpleasant memories.

In Germany, they remember the past.

Or how about 1948, when the US launched the $13 billion Marshall Plan to help rebuild a Europe shattered by war? Did Europe echo to the sound of its people’s undying gratitude for US generosity? Have Europeans thought well ever since of the US and remembered the help provided then? No, they have not.

Which may be one reason why the US, which is the main provider of cash to the International Monetary Fund, is so set against seeing it shovelling cash across the Atlantic to help Europe in its latest hour of need.

In the US, they remember the past.

Or what about 1946-49, when the people of Greece were engaged in a bitter civil war between pro-Western and pro-Communist fighters? Or 1967-74, when the country was ruled by a right-wing military junta, which had seized power in a coup? Perhaps those are two reasons why even today, it has been so difficult for left and right to come together in the face of the financial melt-down.

In Greece, too, they remember the past.

But here’s the point: if we remember the past too well, is there a risk that we allow our memories to cloud our judgement? After all, the world changes, especially economically – who in the 1920s, 30s or 40s could have imagined that one day we’d be fluttering our eyelashes at China in the hope of some lifebelt loans from Beijing and Shanghai?

Back in the days when the creation of a European union and a single market was an ideological project, the belief was that recurrent conflict in Europe would be replaced by mutual commercial interest. It started with coal and steel, France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries – and now, 60 years later, it stretches all the way from Lisbon in the west to Sofia in the east and embraces half a billion people.

Was the creation of a single currency a step too far? Has the euro debt crisis exposed what the doubters always argued: that you can’t have a multitude of democratically elected governments all setting their own tax and spending policies while sharing the same currency?

Or perhaps the present crisis is simply a manifestation of global economic stresses that would have caused problems with or without a single currency. After all, it’s not so long since the US, with its single currency, was struggling through its own very messy debate about how to deal with an eye-watering amount of Federal government debt.

In both Greece and Italy, people are wondering if the markets have now taken over from the voters as the choosers of governments. Lucas Papademos, the new Greek prime minister, may be a splendid chap, but he certainly doesn’t owe his job to the voters. Nor will Mario Monti, the former EU Commissioner who’s now being tipped as Italy’s next prime minister.

On the other hand, if I run up humungous debts on my credit card, which I then can’t pay off, I can’t really complain if the bank starts laying down the law about how much I will have to pay back each month and by how much I’m going to have to cut back my spending on other things.

We’re back to poor old Polonius, in Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” It’s better as poetry than as economic policy, perhaps, but too much borrowing rarely ends happily.

And as for all those people who are urging Germany to “assume its responsibilities” (ie use more of German taxpayers’ money to bail out the Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish), well, perhaps they should remember one more bit of history: the last time Germany effectively took over the running of Europe – using military rather than financial muscle – it ended very unhappily indeed.

Germans remember only too well, even if others don’t.

Friday 4 November 2011

4 November 2011

I’ve been putting it off for as long as I can – but I can put it off no longer. I know it is my duty to write something about Greece, and the euro, and the global economic crisis which some normally sober commentators have now started describing as an impending catastrophe.

But first a word of warning: I am not an economist, and I have an inbuilt tendency to distrust economists who claim to be able to analyse with any degree of accuracy the mysterious workings of international financial markets.

I mean, seriously, how can we trust people who talk about “negative growth”, “taking a hair-cut”, and “quantitative easing”? As far as I’m concerned, the best definition of an economist is “someone who will explain to you tomorrow why what they predicted yesterday didn't happen today.”

So, to Greece. Let’s make it simple: they borrowed too much money, they can’t pay it back, and unless they can get their hands on more, they’ll be bankrupt.

If that’s what happens, a lot of banks who lent them billions of euros will have to kiss those loans goodbye. And that remains the case whether or not the high-stakes gambler George Papandreou is still prime minister.

You probably remember what happened the last time the banks found they’d lent rather a lot of cash to people who couldn’t pay it back. We ended up bailing them out, on the grounds that it’s not a good idea for banks to be allowed to crash.

That’s one reason (not the only one, I know) why the UK government has decided it has to cut back pretty sharply on its spending – because as for everyone else, in the current climate, spending money you don’t have is not regarded as the thing to do.

It’s worth remembering, though, that not everyone is sliding toward the abyss. According to figures from the International Monetary Fund, 20 countries last year registered economic growth rates above 8 per cent. (One of them is Ethiopia, from where Charlotte Ashton reported for us on Wednesday’s programme.)

Of the 20 highest achievers, 10 are in Asia (China and India obviously, but also Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and yes, even Afghanistan); four are in South America (Paraguay, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay); five are in Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria and Ethiopia). Just one – Turkey – is in Europe (sort of).

Yes, I know, these are, mainly, relatively small economies. With the exception of China and India, most of the main global economies – the US, Japan and Europe – are in the doldrums. And that’s why we’re all in so much trouble.

But according to a report presented to the G20 summiteers this week by Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of Britain’s largest insurer, Prudential, Western investors are sitting on trillions of dollars which could go into financing major infrastructure projects in some of the world’s poorest, but rapidly growing, economies.

The theory goes like this: invest in, say, road-building. More roads mean more trade, which means more business, which means more wealth. More wealth means more people with money to spend, which means bigger markets for clothes, and televisions, and fridges, and cars.

Result: growth. But of course, even if theory turns into practice, it all takes time. And with Greece on the brink, and Italy, Spain and Lord knows who else waiting nearby, time is in short supply.

As you know, I try to stay cheerful – but I fear it’s going to be a tough time ahead.