Coronavirus and Autocratic Resurgence

April 1, 2020 at 11:40 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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One of the less discussed outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the astonishing rollback of democratic rights all over the world.‘Stay at home’ decrees and commandments to maintain physical distances have allowed governments everywhere, even in long-established democracies, to suspend constitutionally guaranteed personal freedoms including the rights of assembly and free movement, the right to demonstrate against governments and other entities, and to allow intrusive surveillance. Justified in the name of public safety, even if some of these powers are rescinded once the pandemic ebbs, the data collected could be used by governments (and private companies like Zoom and Facebook) to monitor citizens with little or no public scrutiny.

 A random sample of governments amassing power by exploiting the fear of widespread contagion and extensive fatalities includes the following:  Last Monday, Hungary’s  parliament controlled by his Fidesz party greenlighted a rule by decree by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as long as a state of emergency lasts. Serbian President Aleksander Vučić also assumed autocratic powers in an open-ended emergency by the suspension of its parliament, the imposition of a 12-hour curfew to be enforced by the police, the closure of borders, and barring those over 65 years of age from leaving their homes. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party under Jarosław Kaczyński which had already made the judiciary subordinate to the executive, used the pandemic to compel people in home quarantine to install a government smart phone application to track their movements.

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The Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes’ cabinet similarly obtained rights to govern by decree without parliamentary scrutiny for six months. In Israel, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to win a majority after three elections and his rival Benny Gantz had been invited to form a government, he exploited his rival’s political inexperience to make him accept a junior position in a Likud-led government. Netanyahu also secured legislative authorization to use a trove of cellphone data to surveil Israeli citizens and to delay court actions, postponing his own trial on corruption charges. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once referred to the country’s constitution as “a scrap of toilet paper,” has also engrossed emergency powers as has the Thai prime minister, Prayuth chan-ocha while the military police now occupy public squares in Chile. The Jordanian prime minister, Omar Razzaz, also acquired powers to censor news media and additional authority to detain people.

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French lawmakers increased the powers of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to rule by decree and to requisition goods and services for the medical emergency. And in Britain, the parliament conferred what has been described as “eye-watering” powers on the government to detain people and close borders. India’s Narendra Modi who had already placed Kashmir under lockdown for more than half a year now put the whole country under lockdown with only 4 hours’ notice!

Even before the pandemic had emerged, Republicans in United States Senate had humiliatingly prostrated themselves before President Donald Trump and conducted a farcical impeachment trial; Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had used a shoddy coup attempt to crush all dissent; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro had dismissed the participatory councils that have had a long history in the country and Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales had been removed from office in a coup.

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These breaches in the democratic fabric across the world had been so pronounced, even before the current transgressions, that one of the most discussed books in recent years has been David Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die. Elected autocrats, they argued subvert institutions like the judiciary and the press; coopt important cultural and sports icons or malign and seek to sideline those who resist; disregard mutual tolerance; and violate the law. These are the playbooks of Trump, Modi, Duterte, Kacyński, Erdogan, Orbán, Bolsanaro, and Jeanine Añez who usurped power in Bolivia.

Yet, as Jill Lepore, wrote in the New Yorker magazine, in the years after the First World War, a war fought “to make the world safe for democracy” as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously put it, there was a similar collapse of democracies. Then too, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman empires, there had been a brief florescence of democracies: but these soon withered away in Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, and Yugoslavia, to be followed by Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia and more significantly by Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

In the 1980s democracy had replaced dictatorships in much of Latin America, the Philippines, and South Korea. And in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama had written a prominent treatise The End of History and the Last Man, celebrating the final triumph of “Western liberal democracy.” Yet, within a quarter century, democracy is once again in question.

 

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A study by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, based on 25 international surveys covering 4 million people based 154 countries, concludes that 2019 “represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record” since 1995. Some 58 percent registered their disapproval with democracy in 2019 compared to 48 percent in 1995—with the drop in support especially marked in Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 

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Yet, despite similarities between these two cycles of democratic crises, there are three important differences. Immediately after the First World War, the new democracies that arose were all in Europe or in its settler colonies in the Americas. Democracies established in the Global South after the Second World War were always more fragile as processes like territorial integration, adult suffrage, economic well-being and provision of welfare that took decades if not centuries to be instituted in Western Europe and North America and were accomplished sequentially, were telescoped into a few years in newly independent countries and were expected to be instituted simultaneously in conditions of extreme material deprivation, mass illiteracy, and constant interference by their former colonial powers, and by the United States and the Soviet Union.

 Second, even though the Great Depression had weakened trade unions at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the form of industrialization adopted by the New Deal in the United States, the welfare state in Western European high-income states, and eventually, post-war reconstruction strengthened the industrial working class which formed a bulwark against the return of authoritarianism. Today, the fragmentation of production processes and their outsourcing to low-wage locations have decapitated trade unions in most countries. Though the conservative parties initiated de-regulation in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the social democrats—Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair’s NewLabour in the UK, Francois Mitterand in France—who were the greatest champions of neo-liberalism and finance capital.

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Blaming globalization for the loss of jobs and incomes, the working class—abandoned by social democratic parties—fell prey to the politicians on the right who preached xenophobia and nationalism. Donald Trump’s “make America great again” promised a return to a mythical past to a historically advantaged white working class. Similarly, the Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign demolished Labour’s “Red Wall” in the north of England by blaming migrants and the European Union for economic decline. To cover up the economic failings of his government, Narendra Modi targets Muslims and domestic opponents in India. As the Canadian socialist politician, the late Tommy Douglas, said: “Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”

 

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Though the blaming of foreigners and domestic minorities have garnered large constituencies of support for authoritarian rulers, their policies have consistently favored the rich by tax cuts, privatizations, de-regulations, dismantling environmental controls and the protection of indigenous peoples. They have been able to subordinate the judiciary by nominating judges and to muzzle the press with varying degrees of success.

In March 2020, Prime Minister Modi nominated Ranjan Gogoi, the just retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India who had rendered crucial verdicts in support of the ruling BJP, to a seat in the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. Modi has also coopted sport and cultural icons: in the cricket-mad country, Virat Kohli, the captain of its national team, called the prime minister’s demonetization of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes in 2016 as “the greatest move in the history of Indian politics,” despite its drastic economic consequences.  In the case of Poland and India, it was only after the ruling parties won a second election that it surged ahead with their repressive agendas.

The emergency initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic has licensed further restrictions on the freedom of the press. Governments in many countries have banned the spread of ‘fake news’ deliberately leaving definitions vague and ambiguous.

Third, strangely, it is in fact the very global networks that are castigated for a decline in living standards that make life bearable for the poor: without the cheap smartphones and computers assembled by low-waged workers in China, Uber and Lyft, Zomato and Ola in India, could not exist to create a “gig” economy. Without the cheap imports from China and other low-wage economies, the poor in the West can hardly fulfill their credit-card driven consumer spending, itself a result of low- and middle-income countries purchasing US Treasury bonds to keep the value of their currencies low.

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Once the strength of the trade unions was eroded, opposition to authoritarianism has come from the middle classes—ironically derided as the “elite” by Donald Trump and his allies in the United States, as the ‘Khan market gang’ and the “tukde tukde gang” by Modi and his supporters in India, as “Gullenists” or the “PKK” (Kurdish Workers Party) by Erdogan. In many cases, they have failed to reach out adequately to the poor, especially ethnic minorities. In India at least, the passage of the Constitutional Amendment Act which offers citizenship to all illegal immigrants from neighboring countries except Muslims—and one which cricket captain Kohli stubbornly refused to condemn—and the attacks on universities have mobilized the youth and a wider social strata against the government.

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It is this upsurge that the new round of autocratic resurgence is trying to corral. Nine years ago, the Arab Spring may have been celebrated as a social media and Internet-sparked revolution but not only did it collapse but it also showed that the middle classes are easily surveilled by the ubiquity of mobile phones and wifi-connected cameras. Governments now have used the pandemic as an excuse to legally tap this trove of electronic data to keep an eye on its citizens.Even if these powers are rescinded after the pandemic is over, data collected could be mined to obtain granular details about the citizenry, their opinions, connections, and predilections!

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And of course, policing is always deployed as a disciplinary weapon against racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. In the United States, President Trump’s reference to the virus as “Chinese virus” and U.S. State Department’s attempt to call it the “Wuhan virus” in a G7 communique have led to heightened attacks against Asian Americans. In India, people from the northeastern states have similarly been subject to racist attacks.

‘Stay at home’ orders may subject the middle classes to electronic surveillance but the poor have to put their lives on the line and go to work.Reports of police brutality against workers delivering essential goods in India is a reflection both of their lack of information and their general disdain for manual laborers. Even worse, the sudden lockdown of the country forced millions of migrant workers to walk back to their villages in complete disregard for their lives as all public transport was grounded and private taxis were out of reach. The sheer mindlessness of the order when maintaining physical distancing is impossible for the poor in densely populated countries is not only self-evident but also not essential when people over 65 are most vulnerable and 94 percent of the population is below that age!

 

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Over the long-term, opposition to authoritarianism will pivot around how the Left can formulate a strategy that enables an increasingly atomized poor to reverse their exploitation in conditions where automation and artificial intelligence deprive them not only of well-remunerated jobs but also of opportunities to combine together. Given the world-spanning production and procurement networks, such a strategy will have to be based on a progressive internationalism, all the more compelling because of the continuing destruction of the environment wrought by capitalist neo-liberalism. We need, in short, new strategies to fight authoritarianism in the twenty-first century.

Coronavirus and the World-Economy: The Old is Dead, the New Can’t be Born

March 27, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

–       Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks.

 

The novel coronavirus pandemic has struck the world-economy in a way no other crisis had done before. Earlier pandemics—like the Spanish flu of 1918—struck a world which was far less integrated than today and supply-chains did not then span the planet. Nor was there then the volume of long-distance travel that could transport the virus all over. Since the SARS epidemic in 2002, airline data indicates that air traffic from China alone has increased ten-fold. The Great Depression of 1929-33 settled in over time: now, as countries close their borders and order all non-essential businesses to shutter their stores and offices, economic activity has ground to a halt without parallel. At that time, manufacturing commanded a large share of the economic output, and inventories that piled up could be sold as conditions eased up. Today, services account for the bulk of economic activity and a haircut, an Uber ride, or a dinner at a restaurant foregone cannot be made up. The global financial crisis of 2008-09 may have plunged economies on both sides of the North Atlantic into a recession but not China, India, Brazil and other ‘emerging market economies.’ This time it is different: it affects the entire planet even though its impact is conditioned by how this virus mutates and scythes through populations with different immunities and age, class, gender, and ethnic compositions.

 

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The very distinctiveness of the current situation makes past experience a poor guide even though past experiences can provide some clues. Social distancing as a means to mitigate the spread of the virus will have little effect in densely populated, low-income states. The last major pandemic was the Spanish flu of 1918 which may have come out of Kansas and is estimated to have killed 1 to 2 percent of the world population. But its impact across the world varied widely: 60 percent of its fatalities came from western India where a major drought did not prevent grain exports to Britain and the more malnourished population was more vulnerable.

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The greater vulnerability of the poor to the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, will tragically be repeated once again. Social distancing as a means to mitigate its spread will have little effect in densely populated, low-income states. How do people in slums or informal settlements practice what is misleadingly called social (rather than physical) distancing? In Johannesburg’s Alexandria township, 700,000 people live on 1.9 square miles; the same number of people are crowded into Dharavi’s 0.81 square miles in Mumbai; and Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha is as large as Dharavi but with only 200,000 people. Daily laborers, and people who sell used clothing or vegetables don’t have the luxury of working from home. Nor do people in slums and favelas have easy access to clean water to practice the hygiene recommended to prevent contagion.

 

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Ethnic and racial minorities in wealthier countries are also less able to practice physical distancing. A study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., found that less that 30 percent of the people in the United States have jobs that can be done from home in 2018. Even if new telework technologies like online schooling are included, only 16.2 percent of Hispanic workers and 19.7 percent of African Americans are able to work from home compared to 30 percent of Whites and 37 percent of Asian Americans.

Taxi owners in New York city who took out large loans to buy the medallions to drive yellow cabs are facing ruin as air traffic virtually ceases and the city shuts down. People supplying essential commodities—fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products—have no option than to work if they are to feed themselves and their families. And in the United States, they and the workers in abattoirs are poorly-paid migrants.

 

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It should be blindingly obvious that policies implemented in wealthier North American and European countries cannot be blithely applied in the Global South—and yet that is precisely what the Narendra Modi government has done in India. It imposed a virtual ban on movement within the country for 21 days with just 4 hours’ notice—leaving migrant workers stranded and making no provision for wages in a country where upwards of 90 percent of the working population are in the informal sector and the density of population is almost 400 per square mile. Conversely, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico have dismissed the pandemic as a minor aberration.

 

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Low income countries also do not have the infrastructure to deal with a major pandemic: Bangladesh has 170 million people but only 500 ICU beds. The worst affected country in Europe, Italy, has only 4 doctors per 1000 people; India has less than 1 and other countries fare even worse. Populations of low income states are also more vulnerable to environmental pollution  which reduces their immunities. One third of coronary respiratory diseases in the world in 2018 were in India which also has the largest number of tuberculosis patients in the world—and the latter are especially at risk for Covid-19. One estimate suggests that 300 million Indians could be infected by the virus by July and fatalities could be anywhere from 2 to 3.5 million.

 

Much of the clothing sold by big brand name corporations in the Global North are made by workers in China, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, and elsewhere. With lockdowns being imposed in Europe and North America, companies are cancelling orders and since manufacturers are only paid once their products are shipped while they have to pay their workers and material suppliers beforehand, they are now stuck with large inventories of clothes that have shelf-lives determined by the season. Their governments do not have the ability to bail out manufacturers in the ways contemplated by governments in high-income states. Unlike the United States, they cannot simply print more currency, especially when the currencies of states in the Global South are plunging relative to the dollar: the Indian rupee is now at a historic low as is the South African rand to take just two examples. It is clear, then, that the impact of the virus will be felt disproportionately by the poor, especially in low income countries.

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If the disproportionate impact on the poor is similar to prior pandemics and crises, it is not at all clear how the world-economy will emerge out of it. Responding to the collapse of stock markets, governments are pumping money into the economy but when people are ordered to stay home, the circulation of money slows down as well—especially for small businesses. The Amazons and the Walmarts may advertise for tens of thousands of more workers, but that will barely make a dent in the number of employees shed by small businesses.

 

Broadening our aperture, the scale and suddenness of economic and social disruption is such that there can be no return to the pre-pandemic situation. Supply-chains within and between states have been severed, perhaps irretrievably. The range and severity of these disruptions would depend on how the Covid-19 impacts populations—depending on the virus’ mutations and age, class, ethnic, and gender distributions of specific population groups with their different disease experience and immunities. Given the expansion of robotics and numerically-controlled machines, the ongoing disruption of supply chains may well lead to a further replacement of workers by these technologies, especially if the virus scythes through low-income economies disparately.

 

Again, while the stock market collapse and the rise of unemployment may recall the Great Depression, conditions today are very different. During the 1920s and 1930s, the industrial working class was a key component of the recovery. Solidarities formed in factories and mines were the basis of organizing against deprivation—to the New Deal in the United States and to the beginning of  the modern welfare state in Europe. Widespread de-industrialization and the destruction of unions in the contemporary world have cut the ground from under the trade unions. In these conditions, as the electoral appeals of Trump, Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini and others indicate, the atomized successors to historically advantaged middle and working classes have turned against ethnic minorities and migrants; against globalization and towards a reactionary nationalism. This is true not only in Europe and North America but even in South Africa where migrants from other African states face xenophobic attacks.

 

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Keynesian policies adopted in the Great Depression to increase demand did reduce unemployment but not by nearly enough: in the US, it fell from a peak of 25% in early 1933 to 14% in 1940. It was the Second World War which transformed the US into the breadbasket and factory for the Allied war effort and military mobilization which eventually solved it. And after the hostilities, when de-mobilization raised the prospect of surging unemployment again, Pax Americana led to a new burst of economic prosperity that lasted for a little over two decades—the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism.’

 

The Cold War was the essential component of this age: military mobilization and aid to European allies, and domestically a pact between Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor led to an era of consumerism at home and abroad; the Soviet Union which assumed responsibility to maintain the peace from East Germany to the 38th parallel similarly implemented relatively successful reconstruction in its zone; and independence brought modest rewards to former colonies in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

 

Today, the United States exercises no intellectual leadership: indeed, its president with, what Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman characterized in the New York Times as, his “profound need for personal praise, the propensity to blame others, the lack of human empathy, the disregard for expertise, the distortion of facts, the impatience with scrutiny or criticism” has proved singularly inadequate to the task. His attempts to buy exclusive rights to a vaccine being developed by Curevac, a German company funded by the German government has offended and exasperated not only the Germans but all thinking citizens everywhere. This is hardly the type of leadership one expects from the leading power. Even worse, the US prevented a G7 declaration on the virus because of the Trump Administration’s insistence on calling it the ‘Wuhan virus’ instead of the ‘coronavirus’!

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In contrast, China is stepping up to aid countries: sending doctors and medical supplies to countries from Peru to the Philippines, Japan to Spain. Cuba is dispatching its doctors to Europe and elsewhere. The United States, after having failed to secure exclusive rights to a potential vaccine, is now scouring Eastern Europe and Central Asia for medical supplies and refusing to implement its Defense Production Act to compel its domestic industries to produce these vital goods in a critical time.  Rather that demonstrating leadership, seeking to procure essential medical supplies from these poorer states harkens back to Britain’s policies of requisitioning food from its colonies even when they were suffering droughts.

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Meanwhile, Trump’s allies in the U.S. Congress are pushing through a bill to provide about $1,200 dollars (for those with an annual salary of $75,000 or less) and $500 per child: not even enough for a month’s rent in a major metropolitan center. Strong opposition from Democrats overcame objections to increase some contributions to the poor like extending unemployment benefits but these still remain very inadequate and short term. In contrast, the government of Denmark is guaranteeing 75 percent of salaries (upto $3288 a month) of those with annual salaries of $52,400: amounting to almost 13 percent of GDP. It is the provision of cash to the employees and workers whose spending generates multiplier effects that can at least partially revive economies though that also depends on how supply chains are reconstituted.

 

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The Democratic Party seems equally rudderless. Its presumptive presidential nominee, former Vice-President Joseph Biden has hunkered down at his home and has not been seen making policy statements. Though the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed an early bill, it didn’t address fundamental problems and they are now likely to adopt the Senate version of the stimulus package, with minor revisions at best. Given the urgency of the situation and the strength of industry lobbies, much of the relief will in any case go to companies that have long avoided taxes including cruise lines that fly the flags of other nations than to the lower classes and to ethnic and racial minorities in the country.

 

The Second World War and the Cold War reconstituted the world-economy on a new basis because the concentration of economic and political power in the United States enabled it to exercise intellectual leadership when most other industrial economies had been devastated, hegemony in the Gramscian sense. The United States no longer has a similar dominance. Nor does any other state or group of states.

 

What the pandemic makes clear though is that we need a fundamental change in institutional structures of the world-economy. Wealth inequality has escalated everywhere in the world and is no longer sustainable. The emergence of a precariat, now subject to extraordinary deprivations by the shutdown of economic activities, is not the result of the pandemic or of low oil prices. State institutions have become increasingly privatized. Distinctions between center-right and center-left parties have been erased and neither one shows any inclination to compel Big Pharma to invest in research to preserve public health and prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Indeed, fifteen of the eighteen major pharmaceutical companies have stopped research on antibiotics and antivirals to focus in medicines that generate large profits: to treat male impotence, addiction from tranquilizers, and heart disease. Viruses jump more easily from animals to humans as nature is being destroyed and as cheap meat is dependent on factory farming which also has disastrous ecological consequences. It is imperative to reduce meat consumption..

 

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How we address these issues—and the issue of global warming and climate change—will be key to a new, sustainable, and more equitable pattern of life. With the old dying, and the new being unable to be born, we are condemned to an unstable and volatile future.

Delusions about a “New Kashmir”

August 15, 2019 at 1:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Last Thursday, 8 August 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the nation justifying his government’s decision to end the ‘special status’ accorded to India’s only Muslim majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and indeed to dismantle it as a state and make it into two Bantustans—Jammu & Kashmir with a legislature shorn of several important powers, especially with regard to law and order and land which will be controlled by the federal government; and Ladakh which would be ruled directly from New Delhi with no pretence of democratic accountability to its residents. In particular, the new regulations struck down a provision in the Indian Constitution—Article 35A—which restricted the purchase of land in Jammu & Kashmir to those whom its legislature classified as permanent residents. This provision, Prime Minister Modi said would lead to a new Kashmir, a naya Kashmir, which would become prosperous due to the possibilities open to investment: a reintegration with economic benefits

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These measures were widely popular in much of the rest of India—with people bursting crackers, a routine practice of celebration, vowing to buy land there, even leading to the creation of a whole sub-genre of songs: and, with some in Haryana and other states, known for female foeticide and infanticide, fantasying bringing “white” Kashmiri brides!

What signals do we convey when a lout speaks of now being able to pick a Kashmiri bride? This is clearly the talk of a victor and it’s an image that will abide unless Mr Modi or Mr Shah decide to sack the obnoxious boor. The triumphant breast-beating of Hindu majoritarianism is exactly what is not required, it will not only anger the Muslims of J&K but also infuriate Pakistan and its jehadis.

In an unmistakeable parallel with the “white man’s burden,” Nirupama Rao, a former Foreign Secretary, wrote that in the Times of India that Kashmir was economically 200 years behind the rest of India—a claim that is patently untrue!

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On a variety of socio-economic indicators, Kashmir fares better than the average for India: Jammu & Kashmir’s infant mortality rate (children under the age of one) per 1000 is 23; for India as a whole it is 33; Life expectancy at birth is 73.5 in Jammu and Kashmir, 68.7 is the India average; the poverty rate is 10.4 in J&K but 21.9 is the India average; the sex ratio at birth is 917 in J&K and only 896 in all of India, to take just a few indicators. Yet, Rao claimed:

If one is asked what Kashmir needs most today, it is not the “azadi” that some young Kashmiris claim, but investment, modernisation, livelihoods, gender empowerment and development.

Most importantly, the views of the Kashmiris were never sought. But let us examine the proposition whether the new measures would in fact bring about prosperity. The claim is based on the proposition that the removal on restrictions on the purchase of land would lead to a spurt in investment in tourism and even movie-maklng. Contrary to popular belief, this was a law introduced in Kashmir by its Hindu maharaja in the 1927 to quell fears among Hindus in Kashmir that outsiders—Punjabis, Europeans, others—would buy land in the idyllic valley. It was not directed against the Muslims who were too oppressed to be a threat to the Hindus at that time, though since 1947 Muslims have also come to see the value of this law. Similar laws exist in a number of border states of the country—Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura. It is this law, as Pallavi Aiyer argued in the Hindu newspaper, that shielded the people of Kashmir from “demographic engineering like the large-scale Han migration into Tibet and Xinjiang.” Indeed, after the decision to downgrade Jammu & Kashmir to a Union Territory, the local leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) himself is on record saying that restrictions must be placed on outsiders buying land.

Restrictions on private individuals buying land in Kashmir, as a former state finance minister, Haseeb Drabu underlined in a television interview, did not prohibit corporations from taking land on extendable 90-year leases as the major hotel chains have done and the Birlas who set up a textile mill. Restrictions on land ownership also does not apply to the Indian government and its public sector undertakings which employ 1 million people in the country but only 21 in Kashmir. Border states depend heavily on the central government for investments, especially in infrastructure: and of that there has been precious little in Kashmir, Indeed, given the continued level of militancy, there is little reason to hope that these actions which have humiliated and outraged Kashmiris will lead to greater levels of investment.

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And the state is seething with resentment: Kashmir has been under a communications lockdown for 10 days—no Internet connections (meaning also no credit or debit card transactions), no mobile phones or landlines, no cable TV and most newspapers closed—with a tight curfew. By some estimates, there is one military or paramilitary personnel per 10 persons in the Kashmir Valley! Political leaders in the state who had cooperated with the Indian government have been imprisoned and having been humiliated, they cannot now accept the terms imposed on them. The state police force, which had been on the frontlines of the war against militancy, have been disarmed. There is now no local interlocutor for the Indian government

As Mohamad Junaid wrote:

In the last 30 years, more than 80,000 Kashmiris have been killed, an unremitting military occupation has wantonly destroyed thousands of other lives, and there is an entire generation of people who gave everything to resist it. They will not go silently into the night.

Without regard for its people,

Kashmir as an idea gets reduced to space. Place, memory and people are erased in one stroke. Kashmir merely becomes a territory. We treat it as property, as a turf that belongs to India. The style of politics becomes a set of diktats and politics becomes a continuation of security by any other means. Kashmir as a conversation of democracy ceases. Kashmiris become aliens, stonepelters, terrorists, who need to be disciplined. We forget a state and a people where women and children are waiting for normalcy for decades. There is little sense of concern or care for them.

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It becomes in short, India’s West Bank: a place for settlers to move in armed convoys and occupy another people’s land (and Google searches for “land rates” and “plots of land” in Kashmir spiked soon after its special status was revoked). Kashmiris will be turned into Palestinians—“aliens, stone pelters, terrorist, who need to be disciplned.”The Modi-Shah plan to “integrate” Kashmir looks perilously close to Jared Kushner’s plan for investment with independence in the West Bank!

Darkness at Noon: Kashmir and the Unraveling of Indian Democracy

August 8, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Fresh from winning a huge mandate from the largest electoral exercise in history, the Narendra Modi government has just hammered the largest nail in the coffin of Indian democracy. Flooding the state of Jammu and Kashmir with over 35,000 additional troopsdetaining its political leaders, severing landlines and internet and mobile phone connections, and imposing a state-wide curfew, the Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, moved to end the state’s special constitutional status, and demoted its status from that of a state to the lesser-status of a union territory while bifurcating it as well. While the removal of Kashmir’s special constitutional status has dominated the headlines, it is the state’s demotion that is the more consequential.

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Article 370 of the Indian constitution had granted Jammu and Kashmir exemptions from the Indian Constitution and laws passed by the Indian Parliament except in the matters of defense, foreign affairs, and communications unless the state’s constituent assembly consented to these laws and constitutional provisions. Alone among the states of the country, Jammu and Kashmir had its own constitution and flag. This was the codification of the terms under which the state entered the Indian Union in October 1947 when it was faced with an invasion of tribesmen led by Pakistani officers. The Instrument of Accession, which has the status of a treaty between two sovereign states, had stipulated that provisions of the future constitution of India be applicable to the state only after these provisions had been accepted by the state’s own Constituent Assembly. In effect, this largely meant that the state had special autonomy not granted to other states especially that while the national Parliament “had exclusive powers to make laws pertaining to States, on all matters not in the State and Concurrent Lists, the residuary power rested with the State legislature in the case of J&K.” Such special status is not exceptional to India—Hong Kong and Macau, for instance, have a special status in China. In India too, other states like Nagaland also enjoy constitutional protection from the application of laws passed by Parliament in regards to their social and religious practices and to the administration of their civil and criminal jurisdiction as well as to the ownership of land by non-Nagas. This of course did not arouse the ire of the BJP as the Nagas were not Muslim!

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Indeed, over the years, Kashmir’s special status has steadily been eroded by Presidential Orders. In 1954, with the concurrence of its government and constituent assembly, most of the provisions of the Indian Constitution were extended to the state. At that time, a reactionary article limiting the ability to buy land to permanent residents of the state and mandating that the children of Kashmiri women marrying non-permanent residents lose their rights, was inserted into the Indian Constitution as Article 35A (the Kashmir High Court struck down the provision that women marrying outsiders  lose their permanent residency rights in 2002). Subsequently, over 40 such Presidential Orders were issued further hollowing out the special status of the state. The Indian Government even arrogated to itself the power to change the state’s constitution—changing the position of the governor from one elected by its legislature to a nominee of the president—a power not granted to it by Article 370. Ironically, it is this very change that has allowed the Modi government to abolish the state’s special status: as the state legislature is dissolved it claimed that the governor—a nominee of the Modi government—represents the state government and that he has concurred with the extension of all the provisions of the Indian constitution and laws to the state, thus avoiding the need for a constitutional amendment!

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Nevertheless, Kashmir’s special status has long been a bugbear for the rest of India and the fact that Kashmiris can freely buy land in most of the country (except parts of the Northeast where similar laws regarding land ownership by outsiders apply) has rankled middle classes in the rest of India. No matter that for 10 of the last 45 years, Kashmir has been under direct rule by New Delhi, no matter that elections in Kashmir were regularly rigged, that its independence leader, Sheikh Abdullah was broken by years of imprisonment, no matter that in practice the special status meant that it enjoyed such dubious

benefits such as ‘human shields’, ‘half-widows’, pellet blindings, fake encounters like Pathribal and Machhil, torture and disappearances

the abolition of its special status is widely popular in the rest of India.

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However, the stripping of Kashmir’s special status—hollowed out in practice though it may be—is an emotional issue for the people of the state. They woke up on August 6, 2019 in a place that was not only without its special status but was not even a state! As a union territory, the powers of the legislative body were substantially reduced: from having its elected head of state, Sadr-e-Riyasat, to a governor appointed by New Delhi, it now had only a Lt. Governor. Unlike states, union territories are administered directly by the Indian central government and even though the new union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has a legislature, its powers are significantly curtailed especially with regard to law and order and to land; the new union territory of Ladakh does not even have a legislature and would be directly administered by unelected bureaucrats.

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Never before in the history of India has a state been demoted to a union territory and this fundamentally calls into question the federal character of the Indian polity. It is this erosion of their democratic rights that led to the imposition of the type of

measures one normally associates with a police state – the stealthy introduction of major constitutional changes, the lack of adequate time for debate, the late night arrest of mainstream political leaders in Kashmir, the prohibition of public gatherings, the shutdown of internet services and even landlines – adds the sort of odour one normally associates with coups. The message is clear: there will be no room in Kashmir for free politics of the kind every integral part of India takes for granted.

The arrest of political leaders who had been willing to cooperate with India, the shut down of the internet for the 53rd time this year, the imposition of curfew and the severance of all communication links within the state and between the state and the rest of India—even one-way forms of communications like cable TV—all point to the unpopularity of the moves in Kashmir. If democracy means anything, it means the consent of the governed, No matter how popular the Modi government’s elimination of Kashmir’s special status and its bifurcation into two union territories may be in the rest of India—except the Northeast where there are fears that they could be the next—it could only mean more disruption in Kashmir. Politicians who had been willing to cooperate with India can no longer do so as they would lose even the little credibility they had. It inevitably strengthens the hand of the hardlners. In these conditions if outsiders are allowed to buy land in Kashmir, security forces would have to protect them like the Israelis who settle in the West Bank.

A swing of about 2.5 million residents would shift Jammu and Kashmir from majority-Muslim to majority-Hindu. In a nation of 1.3 billion, that’s not such a stretch. The BJP forcefully advocates for in-migration of Hindus to the state. Officially, this applies only to those who fled Kashmir in the violence of the 1990s, but there is now no legal barrier to a full-bore program of government-sponsored in-migration. Such a move would solidify the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist agenda of redefining India not as a multireligious secular state, but as a Hindu rastra in which 200 million Muslims are tolerated only so long as they remain on good behavior.

Never before has India been as much an occupying power as now—and it is the right of the occupied to resist their subjugation!

Modi, An Indian Caesar? Or, How Not to Interpret the Indian Election Results

May 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Narendra Damodardas Modi’s spectacular victory in the 16th Lok Sabha elections—the first time in 30 years that a single political party has gained a majority of seats—has been hailed as a “democratic asteroid” by Sunil Khilnani, presumably in reference to the asteroid that is said to have exterminated the dinosaurs. The venerable dinosaur of Indian politics, the Congress Party, has indeed been reduced to a cipher, gaining less seats all-India than Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won in Uttar Pradesh alone. And Pratap Bhanu Mehta crowed “Modi is a political phenomenon without precedent”:

he presented himself as something new: to walk into Bihar and talk about transcending caste politics, to utter the sentence no secularist in India has had the courage to utter, that poverty has no religion, to dream of reviving India’s growth prospects, to talk about jobs, to tap into the restlessness for doing things. He became an embodiment for a desire for change.

Even critics of Modi for his failure to protect Muslims from a massacre in 2002 when he was chief minister of Gujarat, like Tunku Varadarajan, argue that “it is time to wipe his slate clean” as we must honor the choice of the electorate and stop harping on 2002  because:

the size of Modi’s majority, … would allow him to govern magnanimously, and with no vindictiveness toward those who did not vote for him. His parliamentary numbers allow him to enact economic reforms that Indians crave, with no need to buy off, or kowtow to, difficult coalition partners. They allow him, also, to extend a hand of reconciliation to India’s Muslims, who, at 11 percent of the population number just over 170 million people. Early analyses indicate that only 10 percent of Muslim voters cast their ballots for the BJP, although the party did win just over 40 percent of all seats with a significant Muslim population.

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Even a cursory glance at the electoral map of India will reveal the magnitude of BJP’s victory and the virtual annihilation of the Congress Party. Indeed, borrowing a page from Indira Gandhi’s victorious 1971 Garibi Hatao (“Eliminate Poverty”) campaign that projected her as a presidential-style candidate, Modi bested the Congress led by her daughter-in-law and grandson, by jettisoning the BJP’s Hindutva rhetoric and projecting himself as a no-nonsense champion of free enterprise and corporate capital.

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In the first instance, the BJP’s stunning victory was a complete repudiation of the Congress—just as the 1977 Janata Party triumph was a repudiation of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule. After having delivered high rates of economic growth during the Congress-led First United Progressive Alliance (UPA) term (2004-09), the country’s growth rate was halved during its second term (2009-14), even though at an annual average of 5.4%, it was still respectable in world terms when other economies are limping along at 0.1% to 2% annual growth rates. Rejection of the Congress stemmed from the Manmohan Singh government’s seeming inability to promote any bold initiatives when the economy was sluggish and inflation had risen to a three-month high in April, just as the massive nine-stage election got underway.

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As pessimism about the economy mounted, Modi projected his ‘vibrant Gujarat’ as the model for India—a model with 24-hour electricity, a thriving agricultural sector, and the world’s largest oil refinery. Modi’s no-nonsense approach to industrialization was manifested by his invitation to Tata to produce his Nano car in Gujarat in 2006 after a two-year long farmers’ protest in Singrur, West Bengal led the company to abandon the project there. Modi immediately welcomed him to Gujarat, cut through the red-tape, and signed an agreement in a record 10 days with Tata Motors. This was, as Vinod K. Jose underlined, Modi’s decisive shift from brutal Hindutva to a corporate friendly strategy. When industrialists had once castigated him for his role in the Godhra massacre of Muslims in 2002, now they began courting him. As did intellectuals—Jagdish Bhagwati who had earlier castigated him for the Godhra massacres, told the Financial Times in an interview in April that he would be “optimistic” about India’s economic prospects only if Modi was elected prime minister. Colliding with corporate campaigns to promote Modi, the largest English-language newspaper in the country, the Times of India, “innovated a revenue-stream called ‘paid news’.”

Large corporate donations, and a slick media campaign allowed Modi to campaign all over the country—often holding five mass meetings a day—appearing in regional costumes and spending an unprecedented amount of money as India has no limits to campaign spending. Campaigning in presidential style, Modi offered as Pankaj Mishra pointed out

top-down modernisation, but without modernity: bullet trains without the culture of criticism, managerial efficiency without the guarantee of equal rights. And this streamlined design for a new India immediately entices those well-off Indians who have long regarded democracy as a nuisance, recoiled from the destitute masses, and idolised technocratic, if despotic, “doers” like the first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.

And his messages were cloaked appropriately for a vast country with different electorates and he reaped a national harvest of votes except in the southern states where his economic message did not carry as these states were doing better than his ‘vibrant Gujarat’ or the East—where association with the Congress did not taint the regional parties in power.

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The Congress, in turn, has been reduced to a shell of its former self—its members in the Lok Sabha plummeting from 206 in 2009 to a mere 44 in 2014, not enough for the leader of its parliamentary party to be recognized as the Leader of the Opposition. As the journalist T N Ninan pithily summarizes the plight of what was once the natural party of government:

The Congress… is now without a strong base anywhere, having been wiped out in its earlier stronghold of Andhra Pradesh, bested in Karnataka, routed in Maharashtra, sidelined in West Bengal, marginalised in Uttar Pradesh, and drawn a virtual blank in more than half a dozen key states across the heartland – a repeat of its rout in the state elections five months ago.

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That this was not an anti-incumbency vote is indicated by the spectacular success of the AIADMK in Tamilnadu which captured 37 of the 39 seats and denied even a single seat to its regional rival, the DMK which was itself enmeshed in the corruption scandals of the Congress party and mired in a feud within its first family; the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal; and the Biju Janata Party in Odisha.The Left had nothing to offer the electorate. After their hopes of a Third Front were cynically dashed by Jayalalithaa who refused to allocate them a single seat in Tamil Nadu, they were left making rote noises about the evils of communalism, privatization, and globalization. The CPM’s long rule in West Bengal had increasingly isolated it from the masses as shown by its brutality towards villagers in Nandigram and Singrur. With its lack of political imagination and creativity, as Shiv Vishvanathan says

The Left leadership of Mr. Bardhan and Mr. Karat belong to a Tussauds of Marxism and one hopes the Left generates new leaders open to a new language of politics and justice. Numbers must generate rethinking in these parties.

Just as much as the sluggish-ness of the economy, it was the corruption scandals that plagued the Manmohan Singh government. Instead of holding open auctions, the government allocated coal-blocks worth some ₹1.86 lakh crore (almost $30 billion) to private firms without any transparent criteria. So too were the 2G and 3G cellular spectrums allocated to private mobile networks. And since 2004, in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, as Vishvanathan noted,

nearly 400,000 people from three large areas of Delhi were displaced, in a series of indiscriminate evictions reminiscent of the last days of the Emergency, to make way for new construction connected to the games. The tournament infrastructure was built with rampant violations of protections like the Minimum Wages Act, and with the widespread use of child labour. The litany of moral failings could go on.

Even when pressed in the only interview he gave in 10 years, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president and dynastic heir apparent, could not explain why the party failed to take action against those found guilty of corruption or continue to nominate them as candidates. His stumbling, inept performance in the election campaign, rarely answering the charges that Modi hurled at him, his mother, and the ‘dynastic’ politics of the Congress only solidified Modi’s image as a dynamic leader. As the journalist, Rahul Pandita, wrote:

All these years Mr. Gandhi spoke about the social schemes the Congress party had introduced in a manner similar to how quacks at roadside Himalayan dawakhanas speak of their “herbs” to cure venereal diseases. In the last few months, his laying down his vision for a better India became a comic spectacle. He referred to poverty as a “state of mind” and commented that “the poor can’t eat roads.

And yet, if Modi jettisoned the rabid Hindutva rhetoric of the BJP, and indeed had marginalized its affiliated organizations like the RSS and the VHP in Gujarat, in the three elections he led in his home state, the BJP did not offer a single seat to a Muslim despite the community accounting for 10 percent of the state’s population. And of the 282 members of the BJP elected to the 16th Lok Sabha, not a single one is a Muslim—its lone Muslim candidate, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, having lost the election. In his native Gujarat, Muslims are condemned to live in ghettos akin to the Jewish ones in pre-Second World War Europe as they are prevented from renting or buying houses in “Hindu” areas.

Unlike Modi, his key lieutenants, especially Amit Shah, the BJP General Secretary, said that the election was to seek “revenge” against the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. And in neighboring Bihar, another senior BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, invited all those opposed to Modi to “go to Pakistan.”  As a consequence, surveys suggest that the Congress increased its vote share of Muslims substantially—from 33 percent to 44 percent in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency, and to over 90 percent in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. Conversely, the Hindu vote consolidated for the BJP. This does not bode well for communal relations. Already there are reports of jubilant BJP supporters throwing stones and breaking windows of mastoids, of Muslims being beaten up for not participating in BJP victory processions.

Nor does it bode well that a third of the new MPs face criminal charges—and these are spread across the political spectrum.

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The scale of Modi’s victory and his record of cutting his rivals down in Gujarat casts him as an Indian strong man, an Indian Caesar. With the 330-odd seats that his National Democratic Alliance commands in the Lok Sabha, it is believed that he would not have to cater to the demands of his coalition partners as his BJP has enough seats to govern on its own. Though much of the implementation of economic programs depends on state legislatures, the magnitude of his victory his supporters believe will compel the states to comply with the diktats from Delhi. Once Modi gets the government out of the way and stop pampering the poor and the lazy, the narrative purveyed by the business-friendly press suggests, nothing will stop bold, innovative, enterprising entrepreneurs from making the twenty-first century, the “Indian century.” As the scale of Modi’s victory became apparent, stock prices in Indian bourses rose exponentially, and Mukesh Ambani, the country’s wealthiest man and ardent Modi supporter saw his net worth increase by $1 billion in a single day!

 

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Gita Gopinath and Iqbal Dhaliwal, respectively professors of economics at Harvard and MIT, articulate the new wisdom that Modi will de-regulate the economy and India will rapidly rise in the “Ease of Doing Buisiness” rankings; that the flood of investments will lead to greater employment and as labor costs in manufacturing rise in China, India will become the natural harbor for companies seeking a cheaper workforce and there will be prosperity for all. What is crucially missing from this fairy tale is that this has been the predictions of every neoliberal experiment since the coup in Chile in 1972 and none of it has borne fruit. By neglecting primary and secondary education since independence, India has a very poorly trained labor force in comparison to China; by neglecting health expenditures, India even trails Bangladesh in many key indicators. The country’s infrastructure—roads, ports, electricity, water supply—are in shambles. And in manufacturing the world over, labor’s share in profits and plummeting as increasingly production is driven by numerically-controlled machines and robots, so greater industrialization does not necessarily lead to greater employment. In fact, by eschewing the social democratic redistributive measures, pursued albeit half-heartedly and ham-handedly by the Congress, Modi will further decrease India’s competitiveness.


Egypt: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

July 31, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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Heaping irony upon irony, three weeks after protesters cheered the military for ousting Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, the new strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on the people to take to the streets in a show of support for him to defeat “violence and potential terrorism.” And taking the large crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square as a mandate to crush supporters of the democratically elected president, the army launched a massacre of Morsi loyalists at their Cairo sit-in on Saturday 27 June 2013.

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Much has been written about President Morsi’s overreach for power despite having secured only 51.7% of the vote in a run-off against a factotum of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak. But perhaps his biggest failure was not to neutralize the country’s coercive apparatus, laughably called its security services.

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Though human rights activists had hoped that as Morsi has himself been targeted by the police during his long years in opposition, he would rein in the police, he openly praised the police for its role in the 2011 revolution—a revolution in which uniformed and plain clothes officers had killed over 800 people, just as they killed Morsi’s supporters last Saturday. The military has also been unrepentant about its role under the old regime: as late as June 2011, General al-Sisi justified the “virginity tests” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces inflicted, among other humiliations, on women demonstrators during the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring.

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In yet another irony, the liberals installed in the interim government by the military blamed the massacre on the protesters killing each other! Nor have the liberals protested the interior minister, General Mohamed Ibrahim, a holdover from Morsi’s cabinet claiming that the anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square gave him the mandate to resurrect the old regime’s hated secret police, the Amn al-Dawla or State Security force that had been disbanded in March 2011. As University of Oklahoma professor Samer S Shehata observes, Egypt’s tragedy is that “its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.”

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When television cameras beam pictures of massive crowds in Tahrir Square opposing President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, it is well to remember that in the first round of last year’s presidential elections, the candidate who won a plurality of votes in Cairo and in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, was neither Morsi nor his opponent in the run off election, but a secular candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Long decades of providing social services to poor neighborhoods in Cairo and other cities, and in the rural areas where most Egyptians live has created a massive constituency of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. No democracy can take root in Egypt by excluding them as the military seeks to do with the connivance of the liberals and the West.

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When secular Egyptians—even radicals like Samir Amin—rejoice at the military’s ouster of a democratically elected president and plaster the general’s photo all across Cairo, they repeat Morsi’s fatal mistake of relying on the army and the police rather than on democratic institutions and protocols. By shutting down Islamists’ media outlets, reviving the secret police, and conspiring to ban the Muslim Brotherhood entirely, the military is fast overturning the gains of the Arab Spring. No future government is safe from military intervention.

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The coup d’etat against Egypt’s democratically elected government will have resonances far beyond the country’s borders. As the oldest and most influential Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has affiliates across the Islamic world and while these parties have largely renounced violence, now they could well conclude that violence is the only way to achieve power. After all, previously in 1992, as the Islamists were poised to win an election in Algeria, the army annulled the election. After they are denied office a second time, why should they place their hopes again in the electoral process? An ultraconservative Libyan cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sibra has already admitted that it has become impossible to persuade militias in Benghazi to lay down their weapons.

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The interim government imposed by the military is also not going to be able to solve Egypt’s economic problems that also fueled the opposition to the Morsi government. When the tourist industry was in the doldrums and over 40% of the population was living below the poverty level, Morsi ended the food and utility subsidies as demanded by the IMF as the price for a $4.8 billion loan. As prices soared, food became unaffordable and the World Food Program reported that the growth of a third of all children in the country was stunted in 2011. Neither the military nor the interim government it installed is likely to reinstate subsidies and the military which controls 40% of the country’s economy will zealously safeguard its privileges. No future government will dare tamper with the military’s perks.

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With poverty and disenchantment in the streets, and continuing oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, chances are that Egypt is in for a prolonged bout of conflict unless international forces intervene. By closing the life-giving tunnels to the Palestinians brutally imprisoned in Gaza, the military has played on Israel’s security fears and inoculated the coup against pressure from Washington. And the collapse of Egypt’s democratic essay has once again prompted the racist trope that Islam is incompatible with democracy. In an op-ed in the New York Times on the day after the coup, David Brooks wrote: “It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”

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It is a real pity that the so-called emerging powers—China, India, Brazil, and South Africa don’t weigh in on the events in Egypt and leave the West to define an ‘international response’! Democracy, after all, is not the exclusive preserve of the West—and the few governments elected by popular vote in Europe and North America before the Second World War were underpinned by colonial or neo-colonial exploitation of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Democracy is no privileged preserve of any peoples–and the peoples of the world ought to pressure governments everywhere to adhere to democratic norms!

 

A Fog of Myths About North Korea

April 29, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Capitalism, Human Rights, International Relations, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Rarely has the manufacturing of consent in the mainstream media been as thorough as it has been in the case of North Korea. It is the original ‘hermit kingdom,’ isolated from the outside world by a dynasty of communist dictators–a ‘socialism in one family’–and irrational to the extent of threatening Washington with a nuclear Armageddon. This reigning consensus is so widespread that there has been little challenge to it in the major news outlets of the world and yet, a moment’s reflection suggests that there are many flaws in this narrative.

 

In the first instance, in a rare piece of insight into North Korea, a former Western intelligence officer who writes under the pseudonym of James Church has argued that since isolationism is a two-way street, the rest of the world is even more ignorant about North Korea than Pyongyang is about the wider world. After all, North Korean officials can monitor radio and television broadcasts, plug into the Internet, and analyse books and magazines from the outside world. They know what people outside their borders are thinking and doing. But people outside North Korea have little insight into what goes on in the country and are metaphorically reduced to examining the entrails of sacrificial animals to divine Pyongyang’s intentions.

 

Hence, Church writes, “We…have developed a fog of myths about them as a substitute for knowledge.  These myths, handed down from administration to administration, are comforting in their long familiar ring, but make it difficult for us to avoid walking in circles. The North Koreans move nimbly through this fog” like small boats deftly weaving in and out between lumbering vessels.

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Rather than nuclear weapons, Church argues, North Korea’s greatest strength is the capacity to behave badly: by carefully choosing the right time, it knows its actions will force big powers to pay close attention even though they may grind their teeth. What it fears most is being swept aside in big power politics, so by playing its weak hand cleverly, it seeks dialogue with the United States, a process that was derailed when former president George W. Bush labelled it part of an “axis of evil.”

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Recent concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear program stemmed from an underground nuclear test on February 12, 2013—its third in seven years. In response, the United States and its allies pressed the UN Security Council to add new sanctions on the country: enhanced scrutiny over shipments and air cargo, a ban on the sale of luxury goods, expanded restrictions on a range of institutions and senior officials. China, notably, signed on to these sanctions and did not veto them.

 

If China is dragging its feet on the issue of North Korea, it is also because Beijing has a stake in the survival of the Kim Jong-eun regime. The collapse of North Korea could bring a stream of refugees to China which already has 2 million ethnic Koreans and threaten the stability of the border region. Moreover, since a unified Korea is likely to be led by Seoul, it raises the possibility of US forces on China’s border with Korea. A unified Korea with some 70 million people would also become a formidable economic competitor and transform the dynamics of the regional economy as Timothy Beardson writes in the Financial Times.

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When President Barack Obama acknowledges that North Korea does not have a single deployable nuclear warhead, and according to SIPRI, the five permanent members of the Security Council—all declared nuclear powers—had approximately 19,265 as of January 1, 2012, this response to Pyongyang’s third nuclear test seems disproportionate. This is all the more so since North Korea has withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the other states outside the NPT—India, Israel, and Pakistan—are not treated in the same way as Pyongyang. As Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian, “If it is offensive for North Korea to talk of launching a nuclear strike against the United States (a threat that is empty because the country has no system to deliver the few nuclear weapons it has), how is it less offensive for the US to warn Iran that it will be bombed if it fails to stop its nuclear research?”

 

In response, statements in the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Rodong Simun, on March 6, 2013 declared that if the US continues to threaten it with nuclear weapons, Pyongyang now had the ability to turn Seoul and Washington into “a sea of fire.” North Korea also repudiated the 1953 Korean War ceasefire and cut the Red Cross hotline though lines between military and aviation authorities across the 38th parallel remain open.

 

Notably, till the middle of March, its foreign office maintained that it will abandon its nuclear weapons program if the United States removes its nuclear threats and abandons its hostile posture.

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In reply, as Peter Hayes and Roger Cavazos of San Francisco’s Nautilus Institute note, on March 25 the United States flew B-52 Stratofortress stealth bombers over South Korea in military exercises that stimulated a nuclear attack on North Korea. Not only did these military exercises stir deep memories in North Korea where air raids killed an estimated 20 per cent of the population during the Korean War but the B-52 flights at the same time demonstrated China’s inability to affect US mobilization. The United States also bolstered its anti-missile batteries in Alaska and the West Coast.

 

Should it then surprise us that the North Korean ruling party’s Central Committee Plenum meeting set a ‘new strategic line’ of simultaneously pursuing the path of economic construction and “building nuclear armed forces”? It also announced that it would resume uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon reactor plant that had been moth-balled in October 2007 as a part of the denuclearization process.

 

Nevertheless, the WPK’s Central Committee Plenum ended by also declaring that “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will make positive efforts to prevent the nuclear proliferation, ensure peace and security in Asia and the rest of the world and realize the denuclearization of the world.”

 

In a state born of guerrilla struggle, leadership requires as Hayes and Cavazos suggest, endless battles and if Kim’s leadership itself is not under threat, he needs to embellish his own credentials. Hence, his belligerence is intended as a professor of Sociology at Seoul National University also suggests, as a manoeuvre to outflank the military while preparing the ground to initiate a more pragmatic economic policy. Thus amid the rattling of nuclear sabres, Kim has appointed as his premier, Pak Pong-ju a pragmatic economist who had been forced out of office in 2007 by the military, reportedly because he followed Chinese suggestions on economic reforms too closely.

 North Korea does not have enough resources to build its economy and to maintain the world’s third largest conventional armed force. Unlike China when it started its reform process in the late 1970s, Pyongyang does not have a huge reserve labor force in agriculture. Its economy is sustained only by extensive food and oil imports from China. To successfully pursue economic growth, a nuclear deterrent will enable Kim to divert labor from his conventional military and hence the ‘new strategic line’ announced by the WPK’s Central Committee Plenum—to simultaneously work at both economic construction and ‘building nuclear armed forces.’

However, by promising not to export nuclear weapons or material, Kim signals that he has no intention of crossing red lines. Indeed, during the recent visit to North Korea by US basketball star Denis Rodman, Kim asked him to tell President Obama to phone him. The American president pointedly refused to accept this invitation in an interview with George Stephanopoulos.

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Again, in an unusual move, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hyon Hak-bong addressed the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and asserted that North Korea’s only interest was its legitimate self-defence. While North Korean ambassadors have attended meetings of fraternal associations in the past, it has usually been to accept messages of appreciation or praise—not usually to make statements. What better way to signal Pyongyang’s intentions to negotiate than for its ambassador to make a statement in a European capital?

All US Secretary of State, John Kerry, would offer in return was an offer to talk if North Korea offered unspecified concessions to show its good faith. Faced with US and South Korean intransigence, North Korea effectively closed the Kaesŏng Indusrial Park—a special industrial region—where 123 South Korean companies had been employing 53,000 North Korean workers and directly paying Pyongyang $90 million in wages every year. Significantly, while this is a serious loss to the Kim regime, it is also a non-military response to what the regime sees as persistent US provocation.

While the military was suspicious of Kaesŏng, viewing it as a Trojan horse, the regime’s decision to close it (perhaps temporarily) may indicate that it is trying to show that it is willing to bear a significant cost to send a message that it is serious in its stance.

This should be seen in the light of the fact that the government has turned a blind eye to the growth of a market activities in the country which, Andrei Lankov, a Russian specialist on Korea estimates provides 75 per cent of the income of the people outside the military and the upper echelons of the party. Frequent travel to China and the availability of DVDs about South Korea have opened their eyes to new possibilities offered by consumerism.

This makes it all the more important for the regime to compel its adversaries to change their policies, to secure a peace agreement, to denuclearize the peninsula, and to get reparations from the Japanese who colonized the country from 1895 to 1945. This has been the aim of the regime for 60 years but has assumed a new urgency. A peace treaty is a sign that Pyongyang needs to show that the United States and its friends that grotesquely masquerade as “the international community” accepts it as a legitimate state.

 

Another blot on the tattered fabric of democracy in India

November 19, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Posted in democracy | Leave a comment
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During the last weekend, the entire city of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital came to a standstill as the xenophobic Hindu fundamentalist leader, Balasaheb Thackeray died on Saturday November 17, 2012. A 21-year old woman from Palghar in the neighboring Thane district posted on Facebook, the message:

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This was “liked” by another 20 year-old woman, Renu Srinivasan. Shockingly, the two were arrested for “hurting religious sentiments” and by Sunday night, Shiv Sainiks–members of Thackeray’s political party–ransacked the orthopedic hospital of Dr. Abdul Dhada, the uncle of the woman who had posted the original message on FB.

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In cold death as in life, Thackeray has been a menace, Since he founded the Shiv Sena–the army of Shiv–in 1966, he has plagued Maharashtra, first, by unleashing campaigns against migrants from South India, and later in the 1990s by vicious anti-Muslim agitations that led to more than 900 deaths, and in this century campaigns against North Indians. His strength stemmed from the Shiv Sena’s unions, which worked with employers to counter–and eventually subdue the more militant trade unions of the city’s textile mills. The Sena also acted as a cultural police targeting Valentine’s day celebrations, Indo-Pakistani cricket matches, and Pakistani writers and artists. Anyone critical of Shivaji, the great Maratha emperor also faced the Sena’s wrath as the historian James Laine found out when he wrote a book about Shivaji, Hindu King in Muslim India. His book was banned first in Maharashtra, and later in all of India, and the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute where he conducted his research was vandalized.

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Rather than confronting arguments in a book, the preferred policy of the Indian government is to ban them altogether. Any book–or cartoon–that depicts someone or some community in an unflattering light is banned: recently a textbook that had a cartoon of Ambedkar, the Dalit leader; a novel by Rohinton Mistry; the noted scholar A. K. Ramanujam’s essay on the Ramayana; Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to name just a few. Banning of books means of course no one in the country can assess the validity of the charges laid against the work in question and why a research institution where an academic consulted books should be vandalized is beyond rational comprehension.

Even then, the case of the arrest of the two women who were arrested in the latest incident should send a chill down the spine of everyone. They had not mentioned Thackeray by name and there are suggestions the arrests were made and the hospital vandalized to settle some local scores. Yet, how these FB posts were singled out among the literally thousands of such posts expressing similar ideas gives great concern.

No one can doubt it is fear that shut Mumbai down: surely one cannot expect the South Indians, the Muslims, and more recently the North Indians to moan the death of a man who persecuted them. What is worse, major political figures from the President of India to Bollywood stars and sporting royalty like Sachin Tendulkar all queued up to pay homage to him on his deathbed!

This is the real legacy of Bal Thackeray. To make political violence so routine that it ceases to outrage. To make the strategy of scapegoating and targeting particular ethnic, religious, or political groups part of the calculus of everyday politics. To make fear and intimidation a legitimate, accepted part of political leadership. And to constantly remind any potential critic, in media or otherwise, of the threat of violent reprisal for saying something that Thackeray and his thugs might not appreciate.

No less part of Thackeray’s legacy is the fact that the political establishment, world of Bombay celebrities, and mediapersons who fawned over him when he was alive as much as they are doing now appear to have quiescently accepted all of this. The curious insistence on journalists addressing Bal Thackeray as ‘saheb’ — imagine, for instance, an article beginning with the words, “Herr Hitler, responsible for the death of millions of German citizens”–merely reflects this legacy.

Only the former Supreme Court of India justice and current Chair of the Press Council of India, Markandey Katju, courageously proclaimed that he could not pay tribute to Thackeray for persecuting his many victims. This too is because

Thackeray did not…come out of nowhere. He was not the creation simply of disaffected subaltern Maharashtrian communities or of middle-class Maharashtrian communities who felt outsiders had snatched what was their due. He represented something central in Indian political society–not an essentialist, ahistorical tendency but a historically produced capacity for using violence as a form of political reason, the absence of a coherent vision of solidarity that could respect similarity and difference, and the many deep failures of the postcolonial Indian state that our exceptionalist pieties about Indian tolerance, coexistence, and secularism often obscure.

They are already talking of constructing a memorial for him in Shivaji Park–imagine what this must indicate to his many victims! Yet another blot on the tattered fabric of Indian democracy

End of the Gaddafi Regime and the New Quagmire in Libya

August 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, Uncategorized, World Politics | Leave a comment
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If the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year regime is to be celebrated as much as the way in which it was brought about must be condemned. A bunch of regime turncoats, Western agents like the rebels’ “field commander” Khalifa Hifter, and assorted others organized protests against the regime in Benghazi some six months ago in the wake of the fall of autocrats in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. When Gaddafi counter-attacked, under prodding from France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron, the United Nations sanctioned NATO to use its air power to “protect civilians” and imposed an arms embargo on Libya. As Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian, from then mission creep set in–from establishing a ‘no-fly zone’ over Benghazi, the NATO mission turned into a bombing campaign against Tripoli. NATO leaders quickly claimed that Gaddafi had to go–from protecting civilians, regime change became the new goal and even the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi was contemplated.

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Shamefully this came about because five members of the UN Security Council–Russia, China, Germany, Brazil, and India–abstained from the resolution 1973 sanctioning intervention, there was no sustained protests across the world against the massive aerial bombardment of Libya for five months by NATO forces. Emboldened by this global quiescence, the fall of the Gaddafi regime was accomplished by NATO’s Operation Siren at the break of the Ramadhan fast last Saturday. As Pepe Escobar writes:

With “Siren”, NATO came out all guns (literally) blazing; Apache gunships firing nonstop and jets bombing everything in sight. NATO supervised the landing of hundreds of troops from Misrata on the coast east of Tripoli while a NATO warship distributed heavy weapons.

On Sunday alone there may have been 1,300 civilian deaths in Tripoli, and at least 5,000 wounded. The Ministry of Health announced that hospitals were overflowing. Anyone who by that time believed relentless NATO bombing had anything to do with R2P and United Nations Resolution 1973 was living in an intensive care unit.

NATO preceded “Siren” with massive bombing of Zawiya – the key oil-refining city 50 kilometers west of Tripoli. That cut off Tripoli’s fuel supply lines. According to NATO itself, at least half of Libya’s armed forces were “degraded” – Pentagon/NATO speak for killed or seriously wounded. That means tens of thousands of dead people. That also explains the mysterious disappearance of the 65,000 soldiers in charge of defending Tripoli. And it largely explains why the Gaddafi regime, in power for 42 years, then crumbled in roughly 24 hours.

NATO’s Siren call – after 20,000 sorties, and more than 7,500 strikes against ground targets – was only made possible by a crucial decision by the Barack Obama administration in early July, enabling, as reported by The Washington Post, “the sharing of more sensitive materials with NATO, including imagery and signals intercepts that could be provided to British and French special operations troops on the ground in addition to pilots in the air”.

Only this massive NATO assault can explain the dramatic fall of Tripoli. But the fall of the Gaddafi regime poses several problems.

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First, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the fall of the autocrat has also destroyed the institutional props of the regime. Unlike in Egypt, there is no army to step into the breach. While this could mean better prospects for the establishment of a genuine democracy, it is more than counterbalanced by the widespread dispersal of arms among a divided people. Gaddafi had nurtured tribal rivalries as a means to ensure his own survival and these rivalries had already erupted among the rebels when its top military commander General Abdul Fattah Younes was killed by his own troops on July 28. Fierce armed rivalry between tribes and other groups may ensue prompting further international intervention.

Second, five months of unchecked bombing has destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and especially its oil industry. Before the civil war, Libya produced about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day but this has now dropped to about 50,000 barrels a day. Javier Blas reports in the Financial Times that under the most benign scenario, it woulds take until 2013 or well beyond for Libya to return to its pre-civil war levels of production.

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But any such estimates do not account for the enormity of the destruction visited on Libya by NATO bombings–of the highways, bridges, hospitals, homes, essential services, utilities destroyed. Some of us remember all too well the Neocons saying that Iraq’s oil wealth will pay for the war and reconstruction–and look where that got the Iraqis. No aid to Libya can be expected from a Washington held captive to the ‘small government’ policies of the Tea Party acolytes or from a Eurozone dealing with sovereign debt of its weaker members. Like other states of the global South, Libya will be left in a quagmire as NATO seeks other locations to intervene and destroy with nary a whimper from the ’emerging powers’ of Brazil, India, China, or South Africa!

Western Imperialism, Libya, and the Arab Revolts

March 22, 2011 at 3:42 am | Posted in democracy, International Relations, World Politics | 3 Comments
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The United States and some of its European allies have once again launched an attack against a state in the Global South–this time as a humanitarian intervention to prevent Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from ‘slaughtering’ his opponents in Libya, and backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and a resolution by the League of Arab States. Strikingly, none of the combatant governments–the United States, Britain, France, or the lesser European powers–sought legislative approval for before launching missiles and war planes against Libya. For an assault against a third-rate military power, it seems such democratic niceties need not be observed.

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Even if it was a foregone conclusion that their national legislatures would have supported the assault against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces–as the British House of Commons did by a lopsided margin–this was largely due to a blanketing of other options in the mainstream media which made no mention of the ad hoc commission established by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to mediate between the Colonel and his opponents. Equally importantly, in the absence of a detailed debate, there has been little planning on what would happen were a stalemate to develop–a possibility that Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted was a real possibility–or in a post-Gaddafi Libya

Indeed, this is hardly a war against Libya. The superiority of the United States in the air is so overwhelming that as Tom Englehardt has noted there is no element of danger for the pilots of US planes who last faced a serious threat in Vietnam in the early 1970s. The Serbian air force did not even bother to take to the air in the war over Kosovo, and in the First Gulf War, the powerful Iraqi air force flew most of its planes to Iran rather than engage with the US-led forces. For American pilots it is as safe to bomb another country as it is to pilot drones over Afghanistan from the Creech Air Force base in Nevada where “those leaving [the base] pass that warns them to “drive carefully” as this is “the most dangerous part of your day”!

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With the absence of any danger to US pilots, this resembles colonial wars where well-armed European troops mowed down with their repeater rifles hordes of native warriors armed only with spears and bows and arrows. Once American planes have taken out all Libyan air defense systems, British and French planes will enforce a no-fly zone, again at no risk to themselves. Underlining the suspension of the ordinary calculus of war, President Barack Obama embarked on his previously scheduled tour of three South American states even as his planes and missiles were pounding Libya.

For NIcolas Sarkozy of France, after the right wing Front National led by Marine Le Pen made historic gains in the first round of municipal elections, an image as a ‘war President‘ may just be the thing to propel him to victory in next year’s presidential elections–damn the consequences for Libyans, in true imperialist tradition!

 

A Libyan rebel empties th 023But the sheer ferocity of the assault is causing anguish even among those who initially called for the imposition of a no-fly zone. Though the League of Arab States had called for the imposition of a no-fly zone, images of the carnage wrought by missiles and bombs led its Secretary-General Amr Moussa to say after the second day of air strikes: “what is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.” Intense pressure however made him back-track, despite widespread revulsion in the Arab world at the carnage sustained by Libyan civilians. Nevertheless, only two small states–Qatar and the United Arab Emirates–among the 22-member states of the League have agreed to take part in war effort. Russia and China which abstained from the Security Council vote have voiced concerns about the attacks and India, which also abstained from the Security Council resolution, became the first country to call for a cessation of air strikes.

The role of the League of Arab States also appears compromised. First, Robert Fisk reported that Washington had asked Saudi Arabia to furnish arms to the rebels in Benghazi to which King Abdullah, facing his own problems, had failed to respond even though he loathes the Libyan leader who had tried to have him assassinated just over a year ago. Then the Wall Street Journal reported that with Washington’s encouragement and knowledge, the Egyptian military had begun to slip arms to the rebels. This raises the question of whether the post-Mubarak regime is going to play the role of another Western puppet–indeed Amr Moussa sudden back-tracking of his condemnation of the killings of civilians in the Western air raids gives no assurance of an independent regime emerging from the ashes of Mubarak’s autocracy. Indeed, it may well be that as Ali Abunimah wrote in the Electronic Intifada: “The greatest danger to the Egyptian revolution and the prospects for a free and independent Egypt emanates not from the baltagiyya–the mercenaries and thugs the regime sent to beat, stone, stab, shoot and kill protestors in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities– but from Washington.”

Many of the commentators who support the assault against forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi suggest, even if grudgingly, that only the Western powers have the means to stop his slaughter of his opponents. This is not only to conveniently forget that the Colonel has ruled Libya with an iron hand but also that after he agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction and join the war on terror, Western powers cosied up to him for lucrartive arms and oil contracts.

It is also to ignore that the African Union had opposed military intervention in the Libyan conflict and that the AU’s own ad hoc commission which Colonel Gaddafi had agreed to meet was not permitted to work as Western military intervention effectively ruled out a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

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Most importantly, there appears to be no clarity on the goals of the air attacks on Libya. The British and American military leaderships claim that the removal of Colonel Gaddafi is not the aim of the air strikes–and indeed not within the scope of the Security Council resolution–but their political leaderships assert that regime change is indeed the goal. Responding to the attacks, the Libyan regime has said that it would arm civilians to fight against ‘crusader colonialists’–this could lead to a prolonged conflict were the regime to be deposed as what is left of his forces and supporters launch a bloody civil war. A civil war on the footsteps of Europe could lead to a flood of refugees and may well pave the way to occupation. Alternatively, in the case of a stalemate, Benghazi and eastern Libya may turn into a Western protectorate.

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