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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Gaddafi Has Two Choices



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Put yourself in the position of Moammar Gaddafi. For years you have been enjoying doing whatever you like with the total wealth of the country, stashing it away by buying large share-holdings in Italian and German companies. Billions and billions more dollars are available in the oil reserves. Western oil companies queue up to give you this unearned wealth and the power to do mischief that goes with it. Meanwhile you have brought up your sons with the idea that they are going to succeed you, and founded a Gaddafi dynasty to enjoy this money. There is nobody and nothing that counts in the country except you and your sons. In fact it isn’t really a country at all, just a bunch of tribes that you have been careful to leave disorganized and stuck in the old ways.

You have interfered successfully abroad by supporting Irish terrorists, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and other African dictators — and killed Westerners by bombing planes and nightclubs. The United States has accepted blood money for American citizens you murdered. Sen. John McCain called you “an interesting man” and Tony Blair is happy to give you multiple embraces and photo-ops. The United Nations elected your Libya to the Human Rights Council. 

Whatever you do, then, has never had any bad consequences for you. The tiny number of men with the capacity and will to challenge you are dead or in exile. In 1996 you had the opposition cleared away by murdering about 1,200 political prisoners in Abu Salim prison. And now suddenly, all because of a lack of dictatorial discipline in Tunisia and Egypt, a bunch of people are out in your streets, shouting against you and wanting all the wonderful things you’ve reserved for yourself and your sons. In the same position, the feeble Ben Ali in Tunis and the sick Mubarak in Cairo threw their hand in. The alternative is to fly in African mercenaries (just in case the local security forces hesitate to obey your orders) and open fire on what you think is a rabble from tribes you have always despised anyhow.

Nobody knows how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, have already been gunned down in Libya, or how many more will be. Once you have shown that you are capable of killing 1,200 men in prison, you are a committed criminal and will certainly go as deep into further crime as you think fit.

Speaking for myself now, I think that addafi is unlikely to slip out of the country like other Arab dictators. It is a case of kill or be killed. Whatever happens, the harm he has done Libya will extend. Either he reasserts himself through superior violence and punishes everyone he suspects of being behind the uprising, or he is himself somehow left for dead. In the latter case, there is no successor, no institution to assume the role of governance, and the horrors of anarchy are the sole prospect.

Mubarak vs. Putin



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How great a fall it is to become an ex-dictator without benefit of the state’s apparatus for stealing under the protection of the secret police. Hosni Mubarak is now a plain Mister skulking away in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, not daring to show his face. The Swiss banking authorities freeze his assets, and the British banks say they are only waiting for instructions to do likewise. His past has caught up with him.

 

Compare this to Vladimir Putin’s continued run. The Daily Telegraph reports that in 2005 the Russian presidential property manager (now there’s a title!) signed a contract for the building of a palace for Putin on the Black Sea coast. This palace is a copy of one built for the tsars outside St. Petersburg. Someone by the name of Sergei Kolesnikov, reputedly a businessman involved in this project, has written a letter to a Russian newspaper denouncing Putin. He claims, “As things stand, the cost of the palace is $1 billion. The funds were mostly raised through a combination of corruption, bribery and theft.” Another Russian newspaper reports that Putin and his successor Dmitri Medvedev share between them “at least two dozen palaces, villas and mansions.”

 

Dictators evidently have characteristics in common, but then so do enraged crowds.

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Now That the Generals Are in Charge . . .



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Communiqué Number Five is out in Cairo, as the new military junta gets going. The generals are in charge, and it so happens that they are lifelong colleagues and cronies of ex-president Mubarak. They have suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament. Military police have been using the usual strong-arm methods to clear protesters out of Tahrir Square, the main scene of protest. Road blocks have gone up here and there in the country, and the soldiers or police manning them are finding fault with identification papers if they can. It is not clear whether Mubarak really has landed up in Sharm el-Sheikh, or how safe he would be there. There seems to be trouble in the Sinai Peninsula where soldiers have been sent to stop the Bedouin from burning down police stations. The military junta assure all and sundry that they plan to introduce democracy but meanwhile are governing by decree and explaining the need to keep anarchy at bay, just like Mubarak before them. The more things change, as the famous French bon mot has it, the more they stay the same. Now why does that suddenly come to mind?

Which Drum?



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The situation in Egypt compels you to hold in your head contradictory things at the same time. Hosni Mubarak was a dictator. Although not a duplicate of Saddam Hussein, he ran a brutal regime and made others believe that this was the sole guarantee of stability. While he was in power, he blocked all prospect of progress, and his departure is timely. An inbuilt weakness of dictatorship is that the mistakes of dictators are irreparable. He took it for granted that he and his security forces were superior to any movement against them. He could not imagine that his colleagues and friends in the military elite would leave him to twist in the wind. As late as yesterday evening he was putting his trust in generals who were in fact abandoning him — traitors, as he would see it.

Amr ibn al-Aas, the conqueror who turned Egypt into a Muslim country in the seventh century, left a famous saying that all that was required for ruling Egyptians was a little drum.

To put that another way, are military communiqués from a committee of self-selected generals really going to persuade those hundreds of thousands to leave the streets and return to orderly life? The choice facing the army is whether to act in its own interest or submit to the crowds. Either course of action carries the risk of violence.

The Muslim Brothers are the people currently beating a very different little drum. The crowds can be heard shouting Allahu Akhbar, and they are waving Islamist banners. Hamas, the off-shoot of the Muslim Brothers in Gaza, is already boasting about the revolution and welcoming home men convicted of terrorism and now escaping from prison in Egypt. Mubarak feared and opposed Iran, whose leaders are rejoicing in the prospect of Egyptian Islamism. The Iranian regime runs a dictatorship at home, then, but enthuses over the fall of dictatorship in Egypt, in plain language encouraging confrontation. Muhammad El-Baradei aspires to speak for the crowd and become president, but in the absence of a real party or organization he looks set to facilitate the Muslim Brothers, playing the role of the Egyptian Kerensky. Throughout the 14 centuries since Amr ibn al-Aas, the alternative to dictatorship was fitna, which the dictionary defines as sedition, riot, discord, dissension, civil strife. Along with sharia and fatwa, this looks like another Arabic term that will be entering everyone’s vocabulary.

The Matter of Superior Force



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The test of strength in Egypt is unfolding on familiar lines. The protesters have been in Tahrir Square for 17 days now, and the only way they are going to get rid of President Mubarak is by raising the projected level of force. They seem to be about to win, as reports are coming in from the media that Mubarak will be resigning within a matter of hours. Should he not resign, then the protesters are threatening that after Friday prayers tomorrow even larger demonstrations will be mounted, and there will be attacks on state institutions such as Nile TV and maybe even the Parliament.

Mubarak was in the position of having to mobilize the counter-force that would have cleared the square. He had his chance a few days ago when his men took on the protesters. The clashes were violent, but not violent enough to give him victory. The army stood by, and that was the decisive factor that sealed Mubarak’s fate. Now he can no longer mount the superior force that alone could have kept him in office.

Power for the moment is lying in the streets, for someone to pick it up. It is unlikely that the protesters will succeed in doing so. Their program is to be rid of Mubarak, nothing more. It is all very well for them to talk about committees, constitutions, and free and fair elections, but this is in the abstract, as no practical means exist for fulfilling these desirable ends. In their hands, power would immediately dissolve into anarchy.

That leaves the final outcome of this confrontation in the hands of the army. The minister of defense, the chief of staff, and the general commanding Cairo are shrewd and experienced men. In all probability, they foresaw how these protests would unfold, and for all one knows they may have coordinated with Mubarak the transfer of power from him to themselves. They have shed no blood. They represent authority. They expect to be able to send the protesters home from the square without a shot being fired.

Military Communiqué Number One has already been issued to show that the army is in command. It would be a really dangerous gamble for the protesters to try to raise superior force. For the time being, in short, this looks like an exemplary military coup.

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Skipping the Debate on the Lockerbie Bomber’s Release



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Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi inflicted real and lasting damage on Britain. He was found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing in which 270 Pan Am passengers were killed. But what happened after he was sentenced to prison increases the wound on the country. Inexplicably, the Labour government of Gordon Brown was afraid that Megrahi might one day die in prison, although that is supposed to be the fate of those serving long terms for murder. They tried to return him to his native Libya under a prisoner-transfer agreement. That did not work out. When Megrahi was diagnosed with a cancer that might kill him within three months, a government minister saw his chance and wrote to his Libyan counterpart advising him that this cancer diagnosis could secure Megrahi’s release from prison on compassionate grounds. And so it happened. Think of it: A British minister was helping to find a way round British justice. Now, a year and a half after his release, Megrahi is alive, and by all reports doing fine. In other words, the public and specially the families of the Lockerbie victims, have been manipulated and cheated and lied to.

David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, says that the release of Megrahi was “profoundly wrong.” It may be that the papers relevant to this fiasco will be published. Apparently Brown and others really were afraid of what Libya might do, in other words anticipating the usual irrational behavior on the part of the preposterous Muammar Gaddhafi, and they’d lose oil business. Money is shown to have mattered above all else. Yesterday Parliament debated this miserable story. Brown did not attend, nor did his then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. To have been kissing Gaddhafi’s sandals is about as far as national humiliation can go. And more than that — Eurabia looms.

All Eyes on Syria



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Many yesterday had their eyes on Syria. Supposedly there was to be a big demonstration in Damascus, the latest in the chain of protests against dictatorship in the Middle East. From outside Syria, it is hard to be quite sure what actually occurred, or why, as the media were among those who did not have their eyes on Syria and have reported virtually nothing. Seemingly, the demonstration was a total failure. But this non-event has as much to say about reality in the Middle East as the Cairo fracas.

The dictatorship in Syria is an insult to humanity. A perpetual spoiler, moreover, the regime for decades has done everything in its power to counteract and destroy American influence. An ideological ally of Iran, and therefore of Hizbollah, it makes no effort to conceal its preparations for war.

For almost half a century the country has been in the grip of the Assads, father Hafez and his son Bashar forming an unholy republican dynasty. They are Alawites, that is to say members of a Shia sect. Amounting to about 10 percent of a population that is otherwise Sunni, they maintain their grip through fear and police-state methods. Hafez simply turned heavy artillery on the Sunni Muslim Brothers in Hama, killing 20,000 or more according to some estimates. Bashar has ordered the killing of Kurds and recently the machine-gunning of prisoners in Saidnaya jail. Brazenly he encourages terrorist organizations to operate in Syria and he had some sort of input into political assassinations in Lebanon. His goons would certainly have beaten and arrested everyone in a small demonstration, and opened fire on a sizeable crowd. To protest in such circumstances is to dice with death.

President Mubarak has been an ideological ally of the United States and helped maintain peace, at considerable cost to himself. Yet President Obama is pressuring this friend to step down as soon as may be, while rewarding the odious and hostile Bashar Assad with the resumption of diplomatic relations and talk of a new relationship with Syria. More than a contradiction, this is incoherence, folly, a sure way to a foreign policy with no future in the region.

Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?



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The protesters and pro-Mubarak people have had a test of strength, but it has not thrown up a clear victor. Both sides are now obliged to see that to continue down that path is too costly and destructive, almost an embryo civil war.  So there is nothing for it except for the small number of contenders for powers to start bartering in private about who is going to get what. This process is too personal and intimate for the outside world to be informed about it. It is a safe guess, though, that while the media are in Tahrir Square boosting “revolution,” and commenting that nothing will ever be the same again, the future is being settled over their heads by the half dozen power brokers who count. The media always manage to select protesters who say in good English that they are staying in the square until they are victorious and Mubarak has gone. These interviews are really promotions of the reporter’s own political prejudices.  Remember the book by Ed Behr making a mockery of slanting the news in this sort of crisis with the title Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?

Outsiders are in no position to judge the significance of the resignation of the executive committee of Mubarak’s single party, the National Democratic Party. It may be a sign that he is weakening, or on the contrary that he can do without them, or maybe it is some sort of sop to the power brokers he’s in touch with. Ambassador Frank Wisner has seen Mubarak, who refused to give him a second meeting. Again, the reason for this is unknown: Either he did not like what he was being told or he wanted to hide up that the two of them shared the same view of what to do and he now wanted to conceal that fact by appearing to defy the United States. Wisner has put on record his opinion that it is “crucial” that Mubarak stay in power until the September elections, in order to supervise the change of regime. A man combining intelligence and experience, he speaks Egyptian Arabic and knows the country inside out. It is reasonable to conclude at least for the time being that Mubarak will indeed survive until September as the central figure on the stage, whereupon the curtains behind him will part and someone pretty much like him will emerge to take a bow.

The Dangers of Taking Events in Egypt at Face Value



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The rioting taking place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square has much to teach about politics in the Arab order. The crowds are not there by accident. For some past days the protesters appeared to have everything their own way. Actually President Mubarak was biding his time and weighing the balance of forces. He wins who mobilizes superior force. Opposition leaders including Mohamed El Baradei and the Muslim Brothers appeared to have mobilized that superior force. Capable operators, they also appeal unanimously to the Western media. Western reporters one and all interpret what they see in terms with which they are familiar at home. So anti-Mubarak good — pro-Mubarak bad, and besides, hasn’t a chance.

How taken aback the media are that Mubarak is mobilizing his defenders, and timing it to maximum effect. Thousands turn up to counter-balance the protesters. The consequent rioting looks frightening, but the arrival yesterday of the tourist camel from the pyramids and some tourist ponies gave away the element of theater. Nobody resorts to firearms that would clear the area immediately. The fact that dozens of tanks all around could have stopped the rioting, but do nothing, means that what is going on is the equivalent of a poll to determine who has the numbers. Somewhere in the background are the generals who can swing it, as they have been doing since the days of Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers in the 1950s. And the force is going to rise until it becomes clear who really does have the numbers. It looks a fair bet right now that Mubarak will stay in office until the September election, which gives him time to organize the succession for his new vice president and companion in arms Omar Suleiman and assure continuity.

When President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron and their spokesmen come out with denunciations of Mubarak, threaten to cut off aid, and speechify about “orderly transition” as though it were some Holy Grail, they are taking the events unfolding before them at face value. Their haste to jump to conclusions that don’t correspond to the situation is partly the fault of the Euro-centric perspectives that the media pump up, and partly stems from ignorance about the invisible springs of action in the authoritarian Arab state. These Western leaders look like earning the contempt of those in power and those seeking to wrest power. A remarkable achievement.

It is Plastic Hour in the Arab World



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There are moments in history when things could turn out in more ways than one, and the decisions of a very few people, perhaps just a king or a president or a revolutionary, settle the fate of millions for years to come. Karl Marx came up with the phrase “a plastic hour” for this uncomfortable moment when history hangs in the balance. We have a plastic hour right now in the Middle East.

Crowds all over the Arab world are protesting against the authority under which they live. Like the French before 1789 or Russians before 1917, they want to be rid of their rulers, knowing them to be brutal and corrupt, as indeed they are. Pretty well every Middle East expert and pundit, and certainly the man with the microphone in Tahrir Square in Cairo, supports the protesters without the least reservation. These Westerners all take it for granted that the protesters share their understanding of freedom and democracy, and once they are rid of the brutal and corrupt rulers all will be fine, and Arab societies will be just like ours.

This is evidently President Obama’s assumption. Famous as an anti-colonialist and openly contemptuous of the British for the way they used to order people about, he nonetheless sends an envoy to instruct President Mubarak peremptorily to leave office and start a process of “orderly transition.” He is taking it upon himself to arrange the government of another country. Never mind the hypocrisy, this is as imperious as anything the British ever did.

Mubarak has been a faithful ally of the United States these 30 years, and for all his faults has kept the peace.  His abrupt and unceremonious dumping signifies that no head of state anywhere can in future trust the United States. Here is a great power that has no qualms about punishing its friends when it is expedient to do so. “Orderly transition” is mere verbiage in the circumstances, displaying ignorance as well as imperialism. No mechanism exists to pass power from Mubarak to anyone else. The plastic hour fills with ambitious contenders: Omar Suleiman, Muhammad El-Baradei, the Muslim Brotherhood, and some likely generals who can command the army. It will be just good luck if the winner of this free-for-all is not brutal and corrupt, and now untrustworthy into the bargain. And in the event that this winner turns out bad, Obama has made sure that the United States gets the blame.

But are concepts of freedom and democracy understood in the same way in different cultures? Pew surveys last year showed Egyptians to be overwhelmingly Islamist. The journalists with the microphones are time and again recording young men saying they want freedom, because freedom means making war on Israel. “Orderly transition” is an invitation to the Muslim Brothers or the army, or most probably some combination, to arrange the next order of things, for instance the balance of power and issues of war and peace.  It is quite possible that when the plastic hour comes to an end and new men are installed in Arab presidential palaces everywhere, the United States will have neither friends nor influence in the region, maybe not even in a disappointed and embattled Israel.

‘The Egyptian Government Is Stable’?



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The spirit of revolution is shaking the whole Arab order. Egypt is the country to watch; it presents the Tunisian symptoms of distress writ large. Hosni Mubarak has been the president for over thirty years, longer even that Zine Ben Ali in Tunisia, who managed only 27 years as dictator. Presidential elections are due in Egypt in the summer. Eighty-two now and known to be in poor health, Mubarak may decide to fix proceedings as before and stay ruling by emergency decree. In which case, natural death or revolution are the only ways for Egyptians to be rid of him. Tunisians made the same calculus with the 74-year-old Ben Ali.

Egyptians are easy-going as a rule; they take life as it comes. Every so often, the injustices inflicted by their rulers are just too great to bear, and they demonstrate furiously in the streets. Mubarak came to office only because Islamists had shot and killed Anwar Sadat, his predecessor. Not a coward, he is a thug. He’s eliminated through death sentences and imprisonment a large number of Islamist opponents, and it is a safe bet that he’ll do the same now if demonstrators really threaten his position. So far, tear gas and water cannons are keeping crowd control, but if the situation deteriorates, the Egyptian army and police, in contrast to the Tunisians, are likely to obey orders to open fire on unarmed people. The outcome of such a test of strength is uncertain but probably an army officer would emerge, Nasser-like, to take power. There isn’t a viable democratic alternative, and the Islamists are probably good only for starting a civil war.

Mrs. Clinton tells us that the Obama administration’s assessment is that “the Egyptian government is stable.” There has been no pronouncement quite so fanciful as that since Jimmy Carter praised the Shah of Iran as a pillar of stability in the Middle East six short weeks before the Shah was run out of Iran. Along with the Arab order, American policy in the Middle East is also shaking.

Every Eight Hours



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Fifty-seven people have been executed already this year in Iran. That means the ayatollahs are hanging someone every eight hours. Last year they executed at least 180 people, a total they will surpass in a matter of weeks at the present rate. Most of the victims are hanged in public and there are sickening photographs of bodies on the gallows with a watchful crowd standing back a bit. The idea of course is to intimidate those bystanders, and it must work up to the point when they can take no more of it, and revolt. But what is this need to intimidate? That ghastly statistic of 57 hanged can only mean that the ayatollahs are terrified of a Tunisian-style uprising, an equivalent surge of popular rage which ends in regime change. The Tunisian dictator Zine Ben Ali is a Sunni and therefore welcome in Sunni Saudi Arabia, but the ayatollahs are Shia and there is no other Shia country to which they can flee. Repression is their last resort.

Tunisia, Put in Perspective



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The Tunisian revolution has raised expectations throughout the Arab and Muslim world. It takes courage to come out in those police states and welcome the demonstrations that have overthrown the Tunisian ex-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Commentators in the media are expressing hopes that other Arab and Muslim countries will follow this example, and democracy will be the happy outcome. A sense of déjà vu, however, is in order.

To start with a historical footnote: As far back as 1860, a remarkable man, Khayr Ed-Din, tried to make Tunisia the first Arab country with constitutional rule. Perceived as transplanting alien and unwanted European ideas into a Muslim society, he was removed from power and went into exile. His experimental modernizing left no trace and might as well not have happened.

Dictatorship imposes narrow patterns of behavior. Ben Ali had no inclination for European ideas. Tunisia was there for him and his family to control and plunder. Prisons were full. Hundreds of thousands of the best educated Tunisians were in exile. When protesters finally could endure no more and took to the streets, he had a simple choice: either to order his security forces to start a massacre as Saddam Hussein had done with the Shia after the first Gulf War; or go into exile like the Shah of Iran. Had he been younger than 74, Ben Ali might well have decided to shoot it out, but he had got what he wanted out of life and in any case sweetened exile by stealing a ton and a half of gold. Saddam had stolen on a similarly extravagant scale, and trucks filled with dollars were intercepted on Iraqi roads.

After the downfall of the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini remade the state of Iran to suit himself, and in the traditional fashion he and his successors have shown themselves willing and indeed eager to kill all who might be in their way. After the downfall of Saddam, a whole lot of ambitious men jostled for power in Iraq, and only the presence of large American forces ensured that some sort of orderly political process with vaguely Western political features was introduced rather than another Arab-style dictatorship. Now in Tunisia another whole lot of ambitious men are jostling for power. Mostly they are old, and compromised by years of toadying to Ben Ali. What they are calling a government of national unity is really only an elitist clique whose members are competing to replace each other. The purging of Ben Ali’s single party is the local version of de-Baathification in Iraq. And this time there are no American forces supervising the introduction of a political process for which there is no precedent. Instead a nephew of Ben Ali’s has been murdered, and there is looting of the villas and shops of the rich, incineration of cars, vigilantes, and random firing from unidentified snipers.

One of the ambitious men is Rashid Ghannouci, the head of An-Nahda, the Tunisian Islamist party. He is returning to Tunis after years in exile in London. Elie Kedourie once showed me an essay Ghannouci had written about the British in the Middle East, a compendium of errors, mistaken names, and conspiracy theory. It is a short step from ignorance like that to willingness to kill opponents in the style of the ayatollahs.

Perhaps civil society will manage to come together out of these disparate and selfish elements. Perhaps the security forces, the old Ben Ali party men, the Islamists, and the angry rioters will evolve due processes to mediate their interests and differences. But in the century and a half from Khayr Ed-Din to Ben Ali, the traditional Arab and Muslim order has been repeating and renewing itself with an energy that keeps Western ideas about democracy at bay.

The Fundamentals of One-Man Rule



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What’s happening in Tunisia is a copybook example of the structural fault of dictatorships, namely that change is impossible without violence. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has ruled that country since 1987, and was set to go on ruling it indefinitely. He had of course made sure to have no successor; that is standard procedure. After all, Ben Ali came to power through just such a coup against his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, who had declared himself President-for-Life. It is also standard procedure that Ben Ali had an aircraft standing by so he and his family could fly out — with probably as much of the treasury as could safely be loaded in the hold.

Hundreds of dissidents — some of them democrats, but others Muslim extremists — have been jailed or are in exile. The secret police and the army kept Ben Ali safe from assassination, so there was nothing for it except a popular uprising like this. We do not know the true number of those shot and killed on the streets, and probably never will. Riots and corpses are to states like these what elections are to democracy.

Someone will emerge to take power — he will declare that he expresses the will of the people, pay whatever price is necessary to obtain the loyalty of the secret police and the army, and set about eliminating opposition — and the whole nightmare cycle of dictatorship will begin once more.

In neighboring Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has been in power for over thirty years, and nobody can predict how or when he will go or who will succeed him. Once again, dissidents and Muslim extremists are in prison or in exile. Same in Libya, where Mu’ammer Gaddhafi has been in power for forty years. Same in Saudi Arabia where the king and the crown prince are both over eighty and succession is uncertain; some are predicting violence there. Same in Syria, where the elder Assad pushed his son into power. In Iraq it took a military campaign and 150,000 American soldiers to break one-man rule, but even that show of superior strength may not be enough to do the trick. The system of one-man rule has a horrible self-perpetuating vitality, and whoever can devise a peaceful way to be rid of it deserves the Nobel Prize.

Sudan: A Promising Past, an Uncertain Future



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Sudan is one of the most retrograde countries in the world. Civil war has lasted since 1959 and cost 2 million lives. The president, General Omar al-Bashir, is the usual kind of Third World thug. He has introduced sharia law, fanaticizing the Muslims of the northern part of Sudan against the Christians and animists of the southern part. Complicating matters, there are some 500 tribes in what has long been an ethnologist’s paradise. You need to be pretty expert to have a clear idea of the Dinka and the Nuer and the Fur and the Messariya and the rest, as well as their geographic locations.

In old days, the British ran Sudan with 200 civil servants. There was little or no military presence. One civil servant, Humphrey Bowman, left a wonderful account of cleaning sewage carts and polishing buckets, of all unlikely things. Colonel Hugh Boustead, another dedicated official, obliged tribal chiefs to educate their sons by telling them they would be donkeys otherwise. The great explorer Wilfred Thesiger joined the Sudan Political Service in 1935, and he was one of only two Englishmen travelling by camel in a district of more than 50,000 square miles with a varied population of 180,000. He would describe how he sat under a palm tree in some oasis dispensing justice with never an objection from those in his open-air court. In the light of the past, nobody can possibly say that the Sudanese are naturally and irremediably violent. Yet not so long ago, an English woman volunteering to teach was in danger of being killed by large mobs just because she suggested that her class might give a teddy bear the name Muhammad. That is the pitiful result of decades of bad governance.

Early in his presidency, George W. Bush spoke about how everyone everywhere recognizes freedom and independence and wants this for themselves. The southern Sudanese are proving the truth of this proposition. As a result of a compromise in 2005, the South is voting on whether to secede or not. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are lines of smiling people whose fingers are stained to show they have voted. A politician from the South put it clearly on television: Either the country stays united and war goes on forever, or it divides and there is peace. Bashir has said he will allow the South to go its way if it so decides, but nobody can be sure he will for once honor his word. One disputed province has large oil reserves and fighting may revive to claim the royalties. Otherwise Sudan could become the kind of country that Bowman, Boustead, Thesiger, and the 200 British officials hoped that it would be.

Of Gods and Men: A Powerful Film



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Of Gods and Men won some prize at this year’s Cannes film festival, and this was enough for me to be sure that it must be the usual hyped-up stuff of no interest. How wrong I was. It is a moving examination of the Christian faith, and how to respond to enemies of that faith.

In 1996, seven French monks in Algeria were abducted from their monastery by members of the extremist Jama’a Islamiyya, and later their bodies were found with the heads cut off. The outrage has never been cleared up. About 200,000 people were killed in the years when the Algerian army and the Jama’a Islamiyya fought it out, and it has been suggested that the army may have killed the seven monks in an operation that went wrong. The army was certainly capable of any crime, but decapitation of the monks was superfluous and more likely to be an Islamist hallmark.

The Christian lives of the monks involves work, study, productivity, prayer and love of others whoever they are and whatever their faith. The Islamists’ lives involve intimidation and murder until everyone is compelled to adopt their faith. This is a dramatization of what is happening in today’s Europe. Nobody has any idea what is to be done about the scale of Muslim immigration all over the continent, the increasing hold that Islamism is acquiring on these new Muslim communities, and the terrorism that is an apparently inescapable consequence. The monks engage in a lengthy debate about their predicament: To stay in the monastery means they will become martyrs, but to leave is to accept that they have failed in their vocation, and there is no place for their faith. Death, they finally agree, is preferable to running away.

I could not have imagined that a French film would so unmistakably combine the Christian faith and the defense of civilization. There was not one empty seat in the movie house, the silence of the audience was total, and the people coming out afterwards looked extremely thoughtful and subdued.

Some Estonian New Year



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People celebrate the New Year in strange ways, and Estonia is an example of that. On January 1, Estonia dumped its currency, the kroon, and joined the eurozone. What a thing to do right now.

I happened to catch an interview with Andrus Ansip, the prime minister of Estonia since 2007. He’s led the campaign to join the euro, and already is word-perfect in Brussels-speak. Membership in the EU, he solemnly droned, will create jobs, raise pensions, and enhance economic growth. Like the rest of the Eurocrats, Ansip no doubt believes what he is saying and will be horrified one day to discover how he has deceived his fellow citizens. All over the country, posters in Estonian and English warned the electorate to be realistic: “Welcome to the Titanic!

Estonia is a small speck of a country on the Baltic, with a beautiful and historic capital in Tallinn, as well as cities like Tartu and Narva. Driving in the countryside one day I came on the house built by Count Pahlen in the 18th century, and it was to architecture what Mozart is to music. But it is the spirit of the Estonians that is most admirable. They have seen off the German and the Soviet occupations, which between them killed many hundreds of thousands, or about half the population. When they were getting rid of Communism, I was fortunate to be shown a documentary about a village from which the Soviets had deported everyone but overlooked one single old man. Speaking to camera, he said he would carry on in his house alone till they came for him or he died. He was indomitable in his defiance, and in the Gorbachev days it turned out that the whole nation was as proud and courageous as him. The dying Soviets got quite close to opening fire on the anti-Communist Popular Front demonstrators in Tallinn, whereupon so huge a crowd assembled that violence wasn’t possible.

Whatever drives Prime Minister Ansip to tamper with his nation’s independence and sovereignty at this moment? Ireland, Greece, and the other financial wrecks are going to raise pensions and create jobs, are they really? Presumably he and those who voted to join the EU think that membership will replace German occupation with German protection, and that will keep the Russians out. Well, Estonia was once said to be a bone in the Soviet throat, and now it can pass on its national characteristics and become a bone in the Brussels throat.

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The Civilianization of Communism



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As the year comes towards a close, the perpetuation of dictatorship is an increasing danger to world order. It is a miserable comment on human nature that so many repulsive characters in the whole range of countries and cultures are willing and eager to commit whatever crimes are necessary to grab and retain power. Alas, nothing but self-serving thuggery and lying is to be expected from the likes of Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Mugabe, or Bashar al-Assad. Hosni Mubarak and Kim Jong-Il risk disorder, perhaps revolution or war, to have their sons succeed them. Ahead of elections, Turkish prime minister Erdogan is busy inventing conspiracies and putting possible opponents on trial. The Palestinian leaders of the rival PLO and Hamas have both decided that legitimacy and electoral consent is irrelevant to them. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has just fixed reelection, further arresting seven of the nine opposition candidates and beating some of them in public so badly that they had to be taken to hospital.

Vladimir Putin outdoes this ghastly crew. Wikileaks reports American diplomats describing Russia as “a mafia state.” More ominously than that, Putin has devised what can only be called the civilianizing of Communism, that is to say projecting the power of Russia without the benefit of the Party and its ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin and later general secretaries knew they were criminals but believed their crimes had political and philosophical justification. Putin continues their actual practices, rigging his position in the Kremlin, promulgating a bogus constitution and holding elections whose results have long been predetermined and have nothing to do with genuine representation. He too orders the elimination, by murder if need be, of whoever stands in his way. But it is novel, and in its horrible way inventive, that he fosters crime without the pretence of ideology, but rather as though it were a normal function of society, and merely the obvious trappings of holding power.

The Communists used to pursue and kill those of their number who defected abroad, like Walter Krivitsky. Putin seems to have inspired the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, and certainly protected the agents actually accused of the deed. It turns out that there are as many Russian spies in Britain as there were during the Cold War, and they are being deported now as then. Under Putin’s regime, something like thirty journalists have been murdered, and many more left crippled by attackers in the street. Nobody has been brought to trial for any of this. Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and adviser to American investors, accused some prominent people of  large-scale swindling, only to be arrested himself on false charges, and tortured to death in prison. Those responsible have been rewarded and promoted.

The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is every bit as sinister. An oligarch among oligarchs, he built the oil company Yukos and became the richest man in Russia. His mistake was to ignore Putin’s warning to stay out of politics. When Khodorkovsky backed various democratic initiatives, Putin confiscated Yukos and got him a long prison sentence in Siberia. Now that Putin is busy arranging to stay in power until 2020, he has arranged to extend for years the prison sentence Khodorkovsky is already serving and so make sure he cannot have any political influence. A handful of brave spirits demonstrated outside the court room against Putin and this commission of injustice.

The difference from the Stalinist show trials lies in the accusation that Khodorkovsky is guilty not of treason but of tax evasion. “Thieves should be behind bars,” Putin told a press conference with a straight face. This is rich. Property laws in Russia depend on what he wants. Like any Communist Party general secretary, he decides who is to be allowed to own what, and he himself, rising from modest origins through the ranks of the secret police, is generally supposed to have a personal fortune of $40 billion dollars. The civilianization of Communism is in every sense a paying proposition, and dictators everywhere will no doubt be studying the technique.

Assange Is Free



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Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks joker, has been released on bail. He exchanges Wandsworth prison for the large eighteenth-century mansion of a friend in the country. The judge, a Mr. Justice Ousely, released him on the grounds that Assange is “not a person who is seeking to evade justice.” Well, nobody now expects a British judge to have any sense of the real world. Bail was set at £275,000.

The really interesting feature of the case is the roster of those who have rushed forward to rally behind Assange and even to stump up the money. Some, like Michael Moore and the Communist filmmaker Ken Loach and the veteran Australian journalist John Pilger, do so out of simple anti-Americanism. Others join in out of infantile Leftism, for instance the Guardian newspaper, and a one-time publisher Matthew Evans. Pure self-righteousness is motivating a good few, for instance a lawyer called Geoffrey Robertson who sees human rights in anything that moves; the archetypal poor little rich girl Jemima, daughter of billionaire James Goldsmith; and Felix Dennis, a man who supposedly has made hundreds of millions out of publishing and has boasted to journalists about his sexual feats, his cocaine habit, and even of murder (though he took back that confession).

Rushing into the limelight, this little squad has no more sense of the real world than Mr. Justice Ouseley, and the fact that Assange has been able to mobilize them is immensely revealing about the man, his whole case, and the extent that British society has succeeded in freeing itself from values. All are too ego-driven to have any perspective on themselves, and all of them believe that ideology or financial success affords them the privilege to dispense with morality and, what’s more, to be applauded for it.

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