The army, now in government with international support, is increasing its economic power and is free to impose the conditions it deems suitable.
What pushes millions of respectable citizens to go to the streets and risk being hit by an army of riot police?
In Egypt, a country of approximately 84 million people, one person in four lives below the poverty line. The last two presidents were toppled after mass protests: it is estimated that fifteen million expelled Mubarak, and thirty Morsi. If there was any real ambition for change, all they had to do is listen to the slogans of the January 25 revolution to hear what the citizens of Egypt expect of their rulers.
The Infitah, Sadat's policy of "opening the door" to private investment inaugurated a market-oriented economy, creating a substantial private sector in alliance with the United States and the west. Mubarak continued with a wave of privatisations in the 1990s and the military were established as part of his business and political elite.
Officials were appointed as regional governors, village chiefs and put in charge of state-run companies. This economic path also leaded to a massive displacement of the public sector: public spending on social services was dramatically cut, state-owned industries were privatised and employees fired.
The contributions from western foreign investment and Gulf aid have so far not trickled down to the broader population. Nowadays, a private oligopoly dominates the Egyptian economy, benefitting from state subsidies and almost exclusive access to bank credit. These companies are subject to very low taxes, and this is justified by the logic of investment support.
No one knows the army’s real share of the economy, but it is estimated at around 40 percent of the GDP. They manage a large number of companies and public institutions, and participate in infrastructure development, urban projects (such as the subway or the airport of Cairo), not to mention the consumer goods industry and their investments in key sectors such as tourism.
The military-business network attracts important foreign investment partners, in part because the sectors where its influence is bigger are also those with the greatest profit potential. Loans from international financial institutions facilitate their efforts to establish companies with Gulf conglomerates and western multinationals. The army is beneficing from this influx of investment, equipment and technology, and controls many of these companies.
For the average citizen the economic difficulties are huge: taxes on profits of small and medium-sized enterprises are generally more onerous than those of larger ones; they have fewer opportunities to develop their economic activity and less access to bank credit.
In the medium and long term, these small companies that create jobs could help the economy, as unemployment has reached exorbitant figures among an educated work force.
Almost half of the workers have no contracts; do not receive any social security or even a regular salary. These jobs provide low incomes and do not produce benefits such as pensions, health insurance, or professional growth.
Egypt is in desperate need for an immediate plan of action for its labour force, with the assistance of independent unions, a minimum wage adequate to the increasing cost of living needs to be set, and a system of progressive taxation needs to be implemented.
Social programs are also near to non-existent; measures need to be taken to improve the education system as well as health and housing. A national development project for Egypt may be the solution for internal growth, and expenditures on health, education and infrastructure will not only benefit the poorest and more vulnerable, but the vast majority.
This year, Sisi invited more than 2,000 businessman and political figures to the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm El Sheikh, where projects covering energy, agriculture, tourism and the expansion of the Suez Canal were introduced. The president also attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and his visits to Europe covered political, economic and security issues.
But as Amr Adly of the Carnegie Middle East Centre pointed out, “the government does not have a plan to spread the benefits of growth. Moreover, it is looking for inspiration in Dubai, whereas India might be a more suitable model given Egypt’s size and poverty.”
President Sisi, former Commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, former President of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and former Minister of Defense under Morsi, is the new Egyptian strongman.
The army, now in government with international support, is increasing its economic power and is free to impose the conditions it deems suitable. This has all been made possible with the help of an increasing number of foreign political allies, global investors and multinationals.
The current power structure ruling Egypt is overwhelming, but “poor economic performance” may be a weak point, as the political analyst Maged Mandour pointed out in a recent article. The question is; how does the current government plan to remain in power with poverty levels and the income gap increasing?Sideboxes Related stories: Has Sisi lost control over state repression? Middle East mix of feudal and dictatorial systems Country or region: Egypt Topics: Democracy and government Economics Rights: CC by NC 4.0
Manchester city council has plenty of means by which to address its homeless crisis - it is just choosing not to.
On the 15th April 2015 homeless people and activists began camping in Albert Square, outside Manchester Town Hall, to protest against homelessness in the city - following a national day of action.
The council moved quickly to evict the camp but on the morning of the planned eviction the group packed up and moved round the corner to St Peter's Square, outside Manchester Central Library. The group stated that they would keep moving the camp until the council listened to their concerns.
Two of the groups activists, Danny Jones and Adam Whelan, met with Bernard Priest, the Deputy Leader of Manchester City Council, who said that the council were willing to consider radical change in the way that they deal with homelessness in the city but refused to meet with homeless people until the camp disbanded.
The council subsequently banned homeless people from using the library and staff at MacDonalds on Oxford Road told a customer, Daniel Jackson, it was now their policy not to serve homeless people. Members of the public donated food, clothing and tents to the protesters as the camp continued to grow.
A number of demos and protests were held in the square throughout May in solidarity with the camp, now calling themselves Homeless Rights of Justice. The group vowed to continue protesting until the council agreed to meet with homeless people and discuss alternatives to their current policies on tackling homelessness in the city.
Manchester residents wrote an open letter to Manchester City Council asking them to cease legal action against the camp and engage with the group's demands. The Homeless Rights of Justice facebook page received thousands of likes and a number of articles regarding the protest appeared in the local and national press.
On the 19th May the group was evicted from St Peter's Square and they moved to St Ann's Square, where they remain - with an additional camp now situated nearby the Castlefield bowl. Donations of food, clothing and bedding continue to be made by residents of the city.
After finally agreeing to meet with homeless people and activists, a representative of Manchester City Council admitted that 'things need to be different in virtually every way that I can currently see'. Councillor Daniel Gillard promised real change in the way that the council deals with homelessness in Manchester.
Meetings with Manchester City Council continued throughout June and July, with the council promising to listen to the views of homeless people when redesigning their policies. The council also advised that they were investigating the 'Housing First' model which has proved highly successful in addressing the issue of chronic homelessness in America and is currently being trialled by some authorities in the UK.
At the meetings homeless people and activists voiced concerns that the current provision for homeless people in Manchester is inadequate – with a number of the group describing the poor treatment they had experienced in hostels and hotel accommodation. Concerns were also raised regarding the standard of supported accommodation in the city and the lack of mental health care available to treat conditions - such as addiction, anxiety, and depression - experienced by people living on the streets.
Following three meetings with the council they confirmed that the budget for dealing with homelessness in the city has been reduced to £530K (from £1.2m), despite the dramatic rise in the number of people sleeping rough, and cancelled any further meetings with the group.
Alternatives to deal with the housing crisis, such as the work of People's Property Shop, who provide homeless people with access to homes in the private sector, have been ignored - whilst the council continues to fund hostels, day centres and hotel accommodation to provide expensive emergency provision. Court fees and costs to police the protest currently total over £100k.
On Thursday 30th July Manchester City Council will go to court, again, to attempt to ban anyone from erecting a temporary shelter within Manchester city centre. A move, which if successful, could see homeless people fined or imprisoned for as little as using a sleeping bag on the streets.
The group's solicitor, Ben Taylor, has advised that the defendants are now probably going to have to represent themselves at court as their application for legal aid has been been denied and a review is unlikely to be concluded before the hearing.
Manchester City Council's current budget reserve stands at £339m, with over £25m in the general fund reserve - a pot of money not set aside for any particular purpose...
Homeless Rights of Justice are calling on Manchester City Council to use £700k from their reserves to make up the shortfall in this years budget and fund real solutions to the problem of homelessness in Manchester.Rights: CC by NC 4.0
Jobs, safe housing, childcare support. That’s what women need. Not prison.
Melissa (not her real name) had been arrested about 45 times and had more than 35 convictions, mainly for theft from shops. As a child she had experienced domestic and sexual abuse. As a young woman, her life was chaotic and she was using drugs, developing a crack cocaine-induced psychosis that criminal justice agencies failed to identify.
Over the years she was given sentences from fines to custody, with no-one picking up her mental health needs. Eventually she was referred to Anawim women’s centre in Birmingham to complete a ‘specified activity requirement’ (now called a ‘rehabilitation activity requirement’) as part of a 12 month suspended sentence.
Staff at Anawim listened to Melissa and asked what support she needed. “Everything” was her reply, but mainly she wanted help with substance misuse and housing, and support to enable her to deal with everyday life, including self-esteem and confidence.
Melissa says: “Anawim changed my life – everything they offered I took on and completed, even doing a maths course and counselling. Now I even have my child back.”
Although Melissa’s story is not typical in every respect – very few women are prolific offenders – many aspects of her story are all too familiar. More women go to prison for theft and handling than for any other offence and most women in prison are there for non-violent offences, on short sentences, which have the worst reoffending outcomes.
When women go to prison their children are rarely cared for by their father and their lives are turned upside down with long term consequences for their wellbeing. Mental health problems are much more prevalent among women in prison — they are nearly twice as likely as men to suffer from depression (65 per cent vs 37 per cent), and more likely to associate drug use with their offending (49 per cent vs 29 per cent).
Most starkly, Melissa’s story makes the case for more widespread provision of non-custodial responses to low-level offending such as shop-lifting.
The latest annual report of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (for 2014-15) reinforces the need for a new approach. It identifies much higher proportions of women than men as having a drug problem (41 per cent vs 28 per cent) or an alcohol problem (30 per cent vs 19 per cent) on arrival into prison. The staggeringly large proportion of the women’s prison population who are on medication (77 per cent) is evidence of the mental and physical health problems that are often an underlying factor in women’s offending.
Women’s services, such as ISIS in Gloucester, WomenCentre in Calderdale, Anawim in Birmingham, have shown themselves more effective than prison in reducing reoffending as well as in enabling vulnerable women whose needs have been long overlooked to lead productive lives. Yet there is patchy provision across the UK of women’s centres and their funding is inadequate and insecure. We need these services more than ever.
Although there has been a decline in women’s prison numbers over the last couple of years, there is a risk they will increase. In England and Wales, anyone serving as little as a couple of days in prison will be subject to twelve months post-custody supervision imposed by the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. The Prison Reform Trust is already hearing reports of women being recalled to prison as a result of this.
On the other hand the new duty on the Secretary of State for Justice in section 10 of the same Act to “identify and address the specific needs of women offenders” should deliver better outcomes for women. But we will want to see evidence that adequate women-specific services and interventions are in fact being provided when the dust has settled from the turmoil created by the wholesale reorganisation of the probation service.
There are other encouraging signs of a sea change in policy. Last week the government’s response to the House of Commons Justice Committee report on women offenders was published. In it, the minister Caroline Dinenage MP, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Family Justice, notes: “For the last two years, the female prison population has been consistently under 4,000 for the first time in a decade. I want to see still fewer women in custody, especially those who are primary carers of young children.”
She has reconvened, and is reinvigorating, the Ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders which, while not representing a fully-fledged Women’s Justice Board mechanism that many of us want to see, is a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile in Scotland, where criminal justice is devolved, the decision to build a new women’s prison has been reversed in favour of small custodial units and community-based provision. The Scottish Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, has said:
“Scotland has the second highest female prison population in Northern Europe.. this is completely unacceptable and does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive society should deal with female offenders.”
We will be working closely with Families Outside in Scotland, a well-respected independent charity that supports prisoners’ families.
In Northern Ireland a new step-down facility is being provided for women leaving prison and the NI Minister for Justice David Ford MLA understands that “the number of women offenders is comparatively small but the impact is not and it is obvious that within the criminal justice system we cannot simply replicate what we provide for men and hope it will work for women.”
So there is a willingness to adopt a new approach and we will be seizing the opportunity this offers to make the case for more widespread provision of non-custodial responses to low-level offending, such as shop-lifting.
We are starting today by publishing a briefing that highlights both the need and the opportunities to accelerate progress in reforming women’s justice.
This marks the start of a new UK-wide drive to reduce women’s imprisonment, and so reduce the toll it takes on the children affected as well as the women themselves. Supported by the Big Lottery Fund for three years, we plan to build on the findings and recommendations of our Transforming Lives report with the Soroptimists and the Pilgrim Trust.
Working with partner charities, we will drive policy and practice change, identify good alternative approaches across the four nations, and promote effective early intervention and diversion of women into services. This makes sense when you consider that short prison sentences — overwhelmingly what women serve — have the worst reoffending outcomes. Women’s community services show better outcomes, reduce reoffending, and are much less costly in every way than the high level security prisons to which non-violent women are sent.
Most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls. As Melissa says, we should “listen more and don’t judge a book by its covers. Women like me need help and the first step is that someone listens, has empathy and shows some love and kindness. I see only good things in the future for me and my child.”
I am looking forward to working with the women who know best what they need to stay out of trouble (such as jobs, safe housing, childcare support), as well as with partner charities, local and national governments, and criminal justice agencies across the UK. Reducing women’s imprisonment will help ensure that more women like Melissa get the opportunity to transform their lives.
Become a Friend of the Prison Reform Trust from just £2 a month – find out more here.
Sideboxes Related stories: Pregnant teenager imprisoned for failing to keep appointments with her supervisor Women's 'secure estate': Does the punishment fit the crime ? Victims behind bars – foreign national women are being trafficked into offending in the UK Prison, a treacherous place for a child Want to improve our prisons, Mr Gove? Stop. Look. Listen. A call for better prison policy in a time of austerity Rising suicides and assaults, more punitive regimes, less rehabilitation. No prisons crisis? Playing politics with prisoners’ access to justice Gambling with public safety: privatising probation Ending the stark choice: domestic violence or destitution in the UK Transforming probation? Or wrecking a service that works? Rights: CC by NC 4.0
New Left Project has closed. Here the editors offer some parting reflections on their experiences running the site.
We are very sad to say goodbye to NLP here at OurKingdom. We have had a close relationship with the site, and its editors, for a number of years. The site published some brilliant essays, with zero budget. And it is that zero budget that eventually appears to have led to closure: "If we want a more diverse media landscape – and at this point few things are needed more – we had better start figuring out how to fund it."
Farewell to a great site.
After five years, nearly 1,500 articles and more than a million visitors, New Left Project has ceased publishing. We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the site, behind the scenes and above and below the line.
We started NLP in 2010 to provide an independent space for radical commentary and analysis, and to offer a home for longer content which could tackle issues rigorously and in depth, whilst remaining accessible, engaging and relevant. We hope that over the last five years we have made a small contribution to political thought and strategy, and served as a useful resource for the Left.
In this short closing piece, we offer some parting reflections on our experiences running the site, what worked and what didn’t, in the hope that this may prove useful to others.
It proved surprisingly easy five years ago to set up New Left Project and build our audience and reputation. One of our biggest worries – whether we’d be able to commission a regular flow of high quality material without any money to pay contributors – proved unfounded. We were pleased to discover that there are significant numbers of people out there willing to give up their time, and subject themselves to a sometimes demanding editorial process, in order to share their ideas.
But whilst establishing NLP went fairly smoothly, and our readership increased fairly steadily, building on these initial successes proved more of a challenge. This was primarily a result of our operating model.
NLP was run by a small collective of editors, all of whom worked on a voluntary basis in their spare time. The collective structure was, on the whole, satisfying and effective. Whilst we occasionally attempted to move towards more formal ways of working, our ad hoc approach proved to be permanent, perhaps because it was well suited to the practicalities of running a relatively small site. Naturally there were occasional disagreements amongst the collective, but these were usually resolved through open discussion, and we never felt a need for a more hierarchical structure.
If working as a loose, dispersed and changeable editorial collective proved effective, the complete lack of financial resources was more problematic. It meant that reconciling editorial duties with other commitments – paid work, political activities, leisure time, friends and family – was a consistent problem. The upshot was that while we were for a long time able to sustain a regular flow of content, and for a time to expand our readership, broadening our base beyond its core constituency and developing the site in new directions proved very difficult. We had many ideas to these ends, for instance, hosting more live events and producing audio-visual content. But we didn’t have the time to implement them.
In the initial stages of a project like NLP, enthusiasm more than compensates for such pressures. But sustaining this enthusiasm requires that participants are able to pursue creative ideas for improving and developing the project in novel ways. If, for lack of time and energy, they are unable to do so, enthusiasm wanes and the whole project begins to stagnate.
Another notable consequence of the voluntary model for NLP has been our dependence upon academic labour. Since we could not pay for articles, we were always reliant for content on scholars who, whilst certainly under time pressures, could afford to write for us for free. One of the most valuable services NLP performed, we think, was to encourage and enable academics who had done politically useful research to communicate their findings in an accessible way to the broader public. But this dependence on academics for content meant that our contributor base, and the type of content we published, were much narrower than we would have liked. Politically engaged scholars have a significant role to play in radical movements. But a site which aims to be a home for the Left, as we did, must include broader voices and be capable of reaching out beyond the sort of audience to which this sort of material naturally appeals.
A related problem was that we were rarely able to commission original reporting, and when offering something other than academic research tended to publish commentary and analysis pitched in opposition to the ‘mainstream’. This is a broader problem in alternative media and publishing and reflects the imbalance of resources between the Left and the forces it opposes. It is one reason why we find ourselves perpetually on the back foot. If we are to take the initiative, and we surely must, we will need to move beyond critique and reactive politics, and to find ways to communicate and produce knowledge for and with each other.
We believe that websites like New Left Project have an important role to play in building and sustaining effective and popular movements in opposition to war, racism, sexism and corporate power, and eventually, we hope, in developing a robust and more humane alternative. There are many factors which work in favour of such initiatives. The technology now available has made publishing, promotion and collaboration cheap and efficient; with no resources, we have been able to commission and publish serious, original analysis of vitally important political issues over the past half-decade. Our overriding conclusion, however, is this: sustainable alternative media takes time and costs money. If we want a more diverse media landscape – and at this point few things are needed more – we had better start figuring out how to fund it.Rights: CC by NC 4.0
Refocusing attention on activist youth helps clarify the complexity of this historical moment we have variably called the 'Arab Spring' or 'Arab Awakening'.
Over the past couple of weeks I have received messages from family, friends, and colleagues across the globe expressing bewilderment and frustration over the latest attack against tourists in the beach town of Sousse in Tunisia.
I suspect that the fact that the victims of this brutal incident were foreigners was related to the especially speedy and detailed mediation of the event and the unfolding of solidarity campaigns both for the families of victims as well as Tunisian society and economy.
Everyone around me here in Tunis, including myself, has mourned the latest attack even more intensely than the last, which took place in March at the historical Bardo museum in the capital. This attack was and more lethal than the first, resulting in the death of 39 tourists, the overwhelming majority of whom were British. General public opinion and sentiment finds this second incident even more worrying in geopolitical terms and more deeply disappointing in social terms.
A single assassin, a 23 year-old university student from the interior of the country, shot at foreign sunbathers with a loaded Kalashnikov for thirty minutes before being restrained by Tunisian police with a bullet to the head. In response to this attack, later claimed by ISIS, the President of the Republic, Beji Caid Essebsi, declared a state of emergency on Saturday 4 July.
The state of emergency entails a series of preventative measures against suspected terrorists including monetary compensation for their denouncers, but also the suspension of industrial action, surveillance of public gatherings, plans to build a wall along the borders with Libya, and the prohibition of travel for Tunisians aged below 35 to specific countries.
The violent occurrence itself as well as the declaration of another state of emergency—the last one had only come to an end in March 2014—are especially shocking for post-revolutionary Tunisia.
Since January 2011, after 65 years of illiberal regimes and 75 years of colonialism before that, the country has managed to complete the drafting of a new democratic constitution and successfully carried out two rounds of elections in 2011 and 2014. Among its impressive achievements is the synthesis of a coalition government composed of the two main political opponents, Nida’ Tounes and Ennahdah, which represent, in broad strokes and for reasons of brevity, the ‘anti-islamist’ and ‘islamist’ visions of contemporary Tunisia respectively.
All this in sharp contrast with the majority of the states in the region, which have translated widespread popular upheaval and the toppling of undemocratic regimes into either mutated dictatorships or outright civil wars.
The efforts by varied media outlets to describe and explain the events in Bardo and Sousse—porous frontiers with a fragmented Libya, a number of Tunisian mosques with questionable missions, the undeniable circulation of ISIS ideology if not funding, a national police force poorly prepared to respond to such acts—have established the vocabulary and images through which both the Tunisian as well as the international public are trying to handle such occurrences.
The images, besides those of the unfortunate victims, depict predominantly armed young men who are more often than not deceased before they communicate their motivations. These motivations are automatically linked to religious conviction and rage; a pairing systematically associated more with Islam than with other religions.
Even within the country, the violent actions of these young ‘jihadis’ overshadowed their individual stories and their socio-cultural and economic context, thus leaving ample space for more clear-cut narratives of national security versus threats predominantly construed as external. As things stand, these narratives risk rallying support for less than democratic and less than human rights-sensitive legal decisions in a recently established democracy.
I have never personally met any of the 3000 Tunisian young men and women who are presumed to have joined the ISIS army in Syria and Iraq, just like their agemates in France, Britain, Canada and elsewhere, either because they shared the vision of the radical utopia they name the ‘Islamic State’ or for material purposes—rumour has it here that soldiers and in case of martyrdom their families are well compensated.
In the last couple of years, however, I have had a lot of contact with other Tunisian youth through my engagement in training programmes inside civil society. These activities revolve around democratisation and focus on ideas and practices of citizenship as a set of social, political, and economic rights and duties.
This personal contact, which comes after almost a decade of work with Moroccan high school and university students and sustained communication with young activists from the rest of the region, has convinced me that the most important space of the Tunisian transition as well as that of the wider region is to be found in locations other than the bloodied floor of the Bardo museum and the death-stricken hotel resorts in Sousse.
It has also reassured me at hard times like this that the protagonists of transition are not those whose faces feature on international news broadcasts as wanted, or, more often, as the already perished enemies of democracy, civilisation and progress.
My attempt to refocus attention on these activist youth, a different repertoire of people and actions, can gain broader purchase—and this was my impetus for writing this article—not only as ‘the other side of the coin’ but, more significantly, as a chance to clarify the complexity of this historical moment that we have variably called the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Awakening’.
Such complexity cannot be summed up by the terms ‘religion’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘security’ nor a 140-character Tweet issued either by ISIS-owned accounts or the myriads of security experts and political commentators on the region.
Ever since my first visit in Tunisia in 2013, I had the opportunity to meet an impressive number of young people who work incessantly and tirelessly on the various axes of democratic transition. Some of them are professionals in civil society with the mission to organise activities every day and night and every single weekend to promote their specific causes.
Others are volunteers dividing their time between their activism and their studies, and more often than not at the expense of their studies, or of a daytime job that ensures some kind of subsistence. Numerous high school students launch campaigns during afternoons or school holidays to make visible and advocate for the most urgent social and cultural issues the country faces.
Among the objectives of this effervescent activity are: the renovation of political parties through young people that are adequately prepared to participate in electoral and governmental work; the shaming and elimination of corruption from all levels of political and economic activity; and the informing and participation of citizens regardless of region, age, gender and education in electoral processes.
They are equally concerned with the attribution of justice to victims of state oppression, from the time of Bourguiba to the regime of Ben Ali and the period after the revolution, in the hope that this will enhance social cohesion and create trust between state and citizens.
The youth organise and facilitate training workshops aimed at tackling socio-political tensions through dialogue and debate, and at correcting the structural inequality that sustains class divisions. The latter are partly the result of an unequal and out-dated educational system and partly the product of the long-term marginalisation of certain identities and even regions of the country.
The qualifications ‘incessantly and tirelessly’ are neither exaggerated nor metaphorical. These workshops and campaigns require long and tiresome trips across the country for both trainers and participants, lasting between two and seven days, sometimes starting at eight and finishing at seven in the evening, with homework for the next day.
Many trainers take time off their paid jobs—some joke that they have not had a holiday since the time of the revolution—and participants regardless of age and educational level join in with energy to the activities scheduled.
The atmosphere of these workshops, organised by Tunisian citizens for Tunisian citizens both of whom are usually aged between 16 and 35—namely the age group that the state of emergency has designated as a risk group—is as mature and as unconventional as it should be. I am referring here to the kind of unconventionality that is necessary when organisers and participants try to imagine anew as much the technique as the meaning of education, paying attention to equality and respect for diversity.
In this environment, differences of opinion that on the official political scene have in the past caused considerable linguistic, psychological, and even physical injury, become objects of discussion and chances to know ‘others’ as humans and as citizens.
There are many stories of reconciliation brought about by contact and new knowledge that resound in these youth circles when they passionately discuss their experiences with funders, journalists, and stakeholders, the latter of whom sometimes help them and sometimes make their lives more difficult. The same stories circulate more informally among them when they relax, coffee or tea and for some a cigarette in hand, at the end of an exhausting day of civic as well as other work.
Things are far from rosy, however, and besides the success stories, their discussions mostly revolve around the challenges to which they have to respond. An important one is how to negotiate the opportunities given to them by the global visibility of Tunisian democratisation, the opportunities for funding to materialise their ideas and invest in their professional development that unavoidably come with the geopolitical and cultural ambitions of other states, from the US to Qatar.
This negotiation entails a fair amount of compromise from the side of these youth. This compromise however pairs with their strategic handling of sexy terms such as ‘capacity building’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ in every funding application and in every conference they attend as ‘young leaders’, where veterans of older mostly western democracies introduce them to the values of pluralism and tolerance—values that have hypothetically been legislated and are respected by western states and public spheres.
Another concern they have is that such attention has a short timespan, and it is up to them to build more sustainable structures that will continue the work of political and social change in the country. Yet how can they start building such structures, they wonder, amidst political competition that exacerbates the socio-cultural anxieties of the population in order to ensure power?
I am referring here to anxieties concerning the place of religion in public life and state institutions, and the way to connect an as-yet partially known past to visions of the future. And all this at a moment when the state is transforming itself along the principles of a free market democracy, which gives the priority and authority of decision-making not quite to a democratically elected government, with all its teething problems, but to the global market. This global market, as seen elsewhere in the region and beyond, has shown little interest in democracy, having cooperated so smoothly with technocrats and oligarchs the world over.
Economic concerns are crucial for the young activists with whom I have spoken for three basic reasons. The first and most straightforward is that a large number of them need this international attention in order to support themselves and their projects financially.
I am not referring here to an elite that would otherwise spend its time in expensive bars and restaurants or charitable events organised by their parents’ businesses, but for people from all social strata that saw in the revolution not only a social mission, but also a path for their own economic integration.
Some have been working for the last five years without compensation, but others consider civil engagement valuable work experience that will help them get absorbed in a more inclusive job market in the near future. In a country with unemployment rates that have hovered around 30 percent before and after the revolution, this type of ambition is to be both expected and respected.
The second reason is that this youth have a hard time counting on the state with which they must cooperate in the long-term, and for good reason. Despite considerable change, decision-making in the county still appears to be the field of the economic giants of the past, who have traditionally excluded many, especially youth, from deliberating on crucial matters such as the creation of a more equitable economic landscape.
This landscape could be the product of youth contributions to new political movements and of a radical reform of the public education system that for some decades now has functioned to reproduce unemployment. The sense of powerlessness that comes with unemployment is aggravated inside socially accepted patriarchy, which is independent of religious convictions and attempts to silence even the most dynamic young Tunisian men and women.
The third reason, which takes us back to the events of Bardo and Sousse, concerns the feeling of abandonment through which many, and not only the most materially marginalised strata of society, experience the state. The long history of repression of the left-leaning and religious leaning opposition has incurred deep social consequences and, for some, debilitating economic hardship. Yet a sense of economic inequality is also dominant in many neighbourhoods, towns, and regions that still lack basic amenities such as running water, roads, schools, and doctors.
In some of these spaces, where the post-revolutionary state has not yet managed to adopt a different face than that of the police force, it is not hard to imagine how dissent through the rhetoric of ISIS keeps gaining ground. It is not necessarily gaining ground as an alternative religious imagination but as what may feel like the only chance for integration into a collective.
The activist youth I work with are acutely aware of the stories of these other Tunisian youth who are their friends, neighbours, and sometimes members of their families. They try hard to seize the moment and the opportunities it brings their way to build something different from their ‘radicalised’ agemates, while also contesting what they inherited from the previous generation.
In fact, they are in constant dialogue with the previous generation from the benches of parliament all the way to the family table, where, with a lot of rigour and some useful insolence, they debate the form and meaning of rights, convictions, and civic engagement.
Five years after the Tunisian revolution, it is their opinions and practices that strengthen my resolve to resist zooming in on the more sensational violent outbursts of the young ‘jihadis,’ and instead testify to the quotidian civic engagement of the youth to realise democratisation.
An earlier version of this article was published in Greek in the online magazine Chronos (chronosmag.eu).Sideboxes Related stories: Eradicating violent extremism from Tunisia? Dry up the sources Tunisia's entrepreneurial spirit Further notes on the evolution of the jihadi international movement Country or region: Tunisia Topics: Civil society Democracy and government Rights: CC by NC 4.0
... Nor Zartonk [New Awakening] the recently emerged leftwing Armenian youth association was there in Gezi Park. And they were one of the main actors in Gezi. They had a tent and when you entered the commune the first thing you saw was Nor Zartonk... From the Squares and Beyond partnership.
Alex Sakalis (AS): When the Gezi Park protests started in Istanbul a lot
of solidarity movements sprung up in Greece – in Athens, Thessaloniki
etc. It was unusual to see such a thing in Greece - there were these
banners that said, “Let’s not divide based on meaningless ethnic and
religious characteristics, let’s unite based on class solidarity” and
people saying “I stand with Turkey”. Were there any similar Gezi
solidarity movements in Armenia?
Babken Der-Grigorian (Babken): There were few, if any, solidarity actions but there was solidarity among the activists. When Gezi Park happened in 2013 it reflected something that had happened in Armenia a year prior. In 2011 and 2012 there was a much smaller park in Armenia they had wanted to turn it into shopping or boutiques. And activists had spent 96 days sitting in, blocking trucks, and resisting police in the snow.
Buket Turkmen (Buket): This was limited to one city?
Babken: Yes. The struggle in Mashtots Park was one of the first victories of our social movements in Yerevan, and to this day holds a very important, symbolic meaning among activists. So when Gezi Park happened, there was that sort of understanding. Everyone was like, "Oh, it’s just like Mashtots Park." And there's that sort of understanding that, "Well of course they would do what they’re doing because we did what we did and we won."
Buket: Maybe the difference of Gezi Park was that it spread to a national scale. We didn’t expect this. It began with an occupation of a park, but afterwards it became something else. Activists from different ideologies united in Gezi Park and it became a movement against the government. And when it spread to other cities and regions of Turkey, it changed its character in these cities; in some cities it became a very nationalist resistence for instance. So there was a risk in Gezi Park - and I don’t know whether you had this risk in Yerevan – there was this risk of it becoming this nationalist, Kemalist resistance. That’s why there were lots of people with flags and Ataturk posters. And Kurdish people were reacting against this.
Babken: Well this is the dichotomy that always already exists in society. The risk exists that it’ll just fall into the polarisation of, ‘well if you’re against the government you must be a Kemalist.’
And that did exist in Armenia in that, when something anti-government happens there are attempts by the old, now-discredited opposition or the ultra-nationalist elements, of trying to co-opt it. What was really beautiful in the Electric Yerevan movement was that people took on this symbolism of traditional Armenian music and heritage in a non-ultra-nationalistic way. The national anthem was sung in the mornings, where the line “I did not sleep at nights” was sung extra loud, in a way emphasizing the commonality of activists on the street and the struggles from a romantic past. Traditional patriotic songs were sung at night with people passing around photocopies of lyrics to songs like “Sardarabad”. And this was done without turning ultra-nationalist. In a way it took that away from them so that those elements were no longer ultra nationalist.
Buket: Do you think it
can still be transformed into an ultra-nationalist movement? Could an
ultra-nationalist group arise from this movement? Because what happened
in our experience in Gezi Park was that there are still some forums
meeting in parks in Istanbul and they are ultra-nationalist groups. In some forums, people are Kemalist and bourgeois and they are supporting the army. They want
the army to intervene and to block Islamism.
Babken: In Armenia I think there is a similar tendency but it manifests itself differently. There is a pro-army element but it’s also pro-government. So in Armenia it’s not so much about not wanting democracy because we’ll get something else. It’s more about not questioning the government because we are at war with Azerbaijan. Calls for greater democracy are framed as somehow undermining national security by these voices, which is just absurd.
Buket: In Turkey these new nationalist-kemalists divide the leftists. They created their own party, which has a heritage in left wing nationalist, Kemalist tradition. They then participated in the elections and right now they have 3% of the votes in Turkey. If this 3% per cent were going to the Republican Party or the pro-Kurdish Party the parliament would be something else.
Babken: I think in Armenia it’s actually a good development that you’re seeing more traditional patriotic music being dispersed in the protests because the government and the ultra-nationalist elements try to keep that as their domain. So if you identify as Armenian and you feel proud of these symbols, then in the past the only structures that would be accepting of you would be the pro-government or the nationalist elements. In the past, activism was very much a rejection of that and there was a more cosmopolitan understanding. And there is still plenty of that in activist circles, but I think it’s important to meet society where it’s at. Unfortunately Armenian society is very conservative, but by dispersing these nationalist and traditional elements throughout the movement, it only serves to strengthen the movement and remove the monopoly on symbolism that pro-government and nationalist elements would have. As soon as they no longer hold that monopoly on Armenian identity, half the battle is lost for them.
AS: So you’re seeing lots of Armenian flags at the Electric Yerevan protests?
Babken: Yes, Armenian flags and traditional Armenian instruments and music.
Buket: This was the same in the Turkish Gezi Park movement as well.
Babken: And unlike the other movements, such as the Mashtots Park movement and the transport movement that were successful, those movements didn’t have so much of that. Whereas Electric Yerevan did incorporate the traditional elements. I actually tweeted about this saying I can’t tell if I am at a protest or an Armenian wedding. Because people were doing circle dances, with music from live traditional instruments, etc.
Buket: But all of these kinds of resistances have these repertoires of action.
Babken: Yeah, I know and I think it's a positive thing, at least in the Armenian context. It’s really important for movements to meet society where it’s at, and if that means patriotic songs and national flags, so be it.
Buket: Yes, it's a positive part of it for sure. If we have a chance to interview each other here, I have some questions about the Armenian resistance. Frst of all I am wondering why we haven’t given support to your [Electric Yerevan] resistance as much as we could? Because there is support on Twitter, Facebook and social media and people are posting things about the resistance.
But in the streets we are concerned with something else right now. We have the risk of war on our border with Syria. Our government tries to intervene and after the elections and after the success of the pro-Kurdish party [HDP] they are rejecting the peace process with the Kurdish population. This is something that is a burning issue in Turkish society these days, so we have lost our concentration on Armenia and we don’t give as much support to this resistance as we could.
Second, I have some questions regarding the gendered character of the various resistances. For instance, in the case of Gezi, women were dominating the organisation of the park and commune, why is that? Because for women, the urban transformation and the gentrification of urban zones, is limiting their freedom.
Especially working class women, for them the centre of Istanbul, Taksim Square, is a liberal place where they can walk easily. Where they can go to bars and cafes and this is a freedom zone for women. So when you try to deconstruct this space and renovate the square by telling public transportation to go underground and making bus stops underground, people, especially women can’t take buses at night because they are afraid of going underground because of the risk of harassment.
There are other things like that. So women were intervening in the resistance and consequently, they changed the repertoires of action. They tried to transform the language used in the slogans because the slogans used in these resistances are always machoist. So they say, “Fuck off police”. But what does it mean, “fuck off police”? So the women said, “You cannot use this slogan because we are here too.” Or some of the men would shout “Faggot police!” And there was a meeting during Gezi, where the supporters of Besiktas Football team came - and they were the heroes of the Gezi movement - and they came with their slogans. They were shouting, “Faggot police!” Then a single, young man shouted, “Maybe we are faggots, but get used to it! We are everywhere!” What he meant by that was that they, LGBT people, were also in the resistance and it’s not respectful to shout those kinds of slogans.
Babken: The same thing happened during the Mashtots Park protest too. Actually Mashtots Park in Armenia saw this change of culture. There you had nationalists and LGBT and progressive cosmopolitans.
Buket: And women? I am wondering about women? Because I know that in Armenian culture as well, the situation for women is not too good.
Babken: That’s true, and where there is a problem in society as a whole, you’ll tend to see those same problems within a movement as well. The role of women is a clear example of that. But I think these kinds of spaces, such as a movement or square occupation, become an opportunity to start challenge these things. Because in the traditional structures that exist it is harder to challenge them.
Of course, you can challenge them on an individual level, but in progressive
movement spaces you can start challenging them more collectively by trying to
build a movement that prefigures a new value structure. Especially in the early
days of Electric Yerevan, you had women anarchists on the front lines. But then
we noticed that little by little they were blending into the crowds and the
gendered aspect became a real issue, especially in the organizing and decision-making.
It’s a little disappointing to say, but it was sort of a regression from past movements
where the role of women had been more prominent.
Buket: Do you think there will be a social transformation of gender relationships?
Babken: I think there already is. Because these are the spaces where they can emerge. At one point in Baghramian Avenue we heard of stories of morality police going around and telling people, “why is your hair this colour?” Or telling women, “Hey, you need to be home right now.” They tried to do that and people got so angry with them! So it broke that entire thing. At one point I witnessed this guy go up to one of my friends, who is one of the organisers.
And speaking with a lot of respect, this guy
said, “Hey I am so and so, I really respect you and the movement but I want to
ask you one thing? What is this?” By that I mean he used a very profane word to
refer to a feminist pamphlet. And my friend the organiser got angry and started
to go off on him. Then the people around the organiser, especially women,
started to go off on him and they said, “Well, if you think that the pamphlet
is that [the profane word] then this is not your space and you need to get
Buket: So they protected the feminists?
Babken: Yes, and I think these spaces in Armenia are one of the biggest hopes for being able to challenge and to break down the conservative relationships. So even if nothing else positive comes out of these things, at least these spaces rupture the conservative mentality.
Buket: The individual experiences are very, very important in these resistances. For example, for me, the Gezi resistance is the period of my life when I felt safe in Istanbul even at 5 o’clock in the morning. I was in the streets and resisters were everywhere so of course there were harassments, but for instance when you are in the street at 5 o’clock in the morning and you are alone in an empty street and there are some men coming towards you, this is something that is frightening. But I was not afraid any more when I was seeing these men in the street with these bags coming toward me. These bags are now a symbol of all resistances globally, because you need something to carry your mask in and your helmet because you are a resister. So when I was seeing these men coming towards me carrying those bags I knew I was safe and that they would protect me against everything.
AS: When I think of the Gezi protests the defining image for me is unfortunately the image of the girl in the red dress getting hit with the water cannon which went viral worldwide and it's a symbolic image, for better or for worse.
Buket: She is very disturbed by this - she does not feel at all easy about it. When I wanted to interview her, she refused and said, "I was only one of the people and I don’t want to be famous because of a violent photo." She feels quite stigmatized by it.
I think that women really emerged for the first time during these resistances. It is not like the Marxist-Leninist resistances in the 1970s because at that time they were trying to hide their femininity, but now they try to resist using their femininity. And this is probably the impact of radical feminism. That is why putting on red lipstick is a form of resistance and this is part of the new repertories of action of feminist struggle that we were talking about.
Babken: One thing you did mention that I want to go back to and that is why there isn’t as much solidarity between the movements in Turkey and Armenia. But I think a beautiful story that really needs to be highlighted is that actually Gezi Park was the place of an Armenian cemetery. I was recently in Istanbul for the Armenian Genocide commemoration and we went to the Armenian cemetery. I didn’t know this but during Gezi Park they had discovered Armenian tombstones and the protestors had cleaned them, protected them and taken them to the Armenian cemetery so that they could be secure. So they are now on display in the Armenian cemetery. And when I first heard about that I thought, “How great, those tombstones could have been broken or just ignored.” It was a reflection of the values of Gezi Park.
Buket: No, no. Because Nor Zartonk [New Awakening] which is the Armenian youth, left-wing association and a very recent one, they were there in Gezi Park. And they were one of the main actors in Gezi. They had a tent and when you were entering the commune the first thing you saw was Nor Zartonk.
AS: Did the global media covered the protests in Yerevan in the same way – by trying to find the defining image?
Babken: They have definitely covered it more than any other protest in Armenia in the past. And actually during the panel they were talking about how Twitter is slacktivism or whatever. And I’ve always been very sceptical of Twitter and online organizing, but I feel like the hashtag #ElectricYerevan worked to grab the attention of a global audience. So this time it worked. But of course, the biggest reason, I think, for this, was the sensational photos coming from the police repression of activists with the water canons.
Now the thing with the media coverage, we had the Russian media coverage, we had the Western media coverage and the local media coverage. And all three of them had their particular political agendas which were very obvious. The Russian media, from the beginning, demonized it and called it a ‘maidan’ and ‘colour revolution’. It was really insulting to many, especially to those who consider Russia to be a friend and ally.
The local media tried to spin it and in its own way tried to confuse the protestors, discredit the movement and spread misinformation all around. It’s no secret that the mass media landscape in Armenia is controlled by government and semi-governmental interests. So for example, they were spreading a false story that the ‘protestors blocked an ambulance which caused a woman to die’ and this kind of just blatantly wrong information. And then the international media, especially some of the better international media, attempted to touch upon the nuances, but again they wanted to see what was happening in Armenia through a Russian lens.
And some see it as some sort of resistance against Russia. And it’s true there was a Russian element to it, but it wasn’t about Russia, but no one wanted to hear that story. No matter how many times I told people, ‘This isn’t a maidan, this isn’t about Russia’. Everyone wanted to see what was happening in Armenia through an imperialist or colonialist lens. Whether that was from a Western colonial lens or a Russian colonial lens. Either way no one could talk about Armenia, as Armenia, they had to talk about it in relation to Russia or in relation to Europe.
AS: And how was it covered in Turkey, if at all?
Buket: They speak about it in relation to Gezi Park. They try to translate it, even in the media; they try to translate it as the latest effect - in another country - of these resistances. For instance CNN Turk still uses references to Gezi Park as they try to transmit information about what is happening in Yerevan. And they say, “You see, they have the same kind of slogans, the same kind of jokes and humour”. So they argue that this is the same kind of resistance.
But as I said before, unfortunately, we have other concerns right now. We were protesting against the demolition of an Armenian camp in Istanbul a few weeks ago – Kamp Armen. It was a summer camp, which was used by Armenian children. They, the children worked as labourers to build the camp, constructed it. And after the coup d’état they evacuated the camp and they forbid it. But now, as far as I know, the Government has sold it off to a private person. So there is this big issue of Kamp Armen and the Armenian, young people are trying to get back this camp because it belonged to an Armenian foundation. So we were giving support to this occupation as non-Armenian citizens of Istanbul. I myself was giving support to this occupation. Whereas the Yerevan situation was not something we protested in support of.
Babken: That is okay. The thing we should be doing better is that there should be better connection between what is happening in Kamp Armen and what is happening in Electric Yerevan. And one idea I had is that the Nor Zartonk people have been to Yerevan and we have been to Istanbul, but if that connection could be strengthened, that would be a good avenue to strengthen ties in what is happening in Turkish civil society and what is happening in Armenian civil society. It could be a really big bridge. Maybe it’s time for a Nor Zartonk chapter in Yerevan.
AS: Just to wrap up this discussion. Buket, would you say anything to Babken about your experiences in Gezi Park and the political changes that resulted from that in the longer term, which might interest protestors in Armenia? For example, what about the success of the pro-Kurdish party, the HDP - and its relationship to Gezi Park?
Buket: Yes, one of my articles in openDemocracy is on that issue. Because I do see it as connected to the Gezi Park occupation. And afterwards the Gezi Park occupation led to greater support among ‘White Turks’ to the Kobane resistance and HDP’s success is a consequence of these two resistances. By that, I mean the interaction between the Gezi Park resistance and the Kobane resistance. White Turks voted for HDP.
As for what we learned from Gezi Park - this was the danger of the lack of organisation. I mean of course there are new types of organisations emerging after Gezi Park such as neighbourhood solidarity forums and from these forums we can create links to political parties to help change and transform them from inside. Because the forums were respected by the HDP, and the forums in turn lent their support to the HDP.
But we should be more organised. There wasn’t good communication between neighbourhood solidarity forums that were created after Gezi Park. So we should have been more organised and in better communication with each other to create something stronger than this. We could have had a greater influence on the elections. I mean it’s better than nothing, but it could have been better than this. The lack of organisation is a big problem.
AS: And Babken, any concluding thoughts?
Babken: I agree, it is a big problem. I think in Armenia there is a lack of formal organisation but there is an abundance of informal organisation. The network of activists that spearheaded Electric Yerevan are the same group of activists that have been organising all the protests that have been happening over the last 4 to 5 years and which have had tangible results. So I am not sure how it needs to be formalized, perhaps a hybrid movement-party, or multiple new formal organizations that can compliment and support each other, and change the political reality in the country.
Buket: I mean that we need a new language of organization. For instance we had this focus group discussion with the representatives of new organizations created soon after Gezi. And they all say that, “We need to find a new form of organisation and we don’t have it yet’. It doesn’t exist in the world yet and we are searching for it. A form of organization which would respect the individual freedom of its members, a non-hierarchical type of organization, avoiding leadership… All of us agree on the characteristics of the organization needed, but we don’t really know what to do with these characteristics. The resistences don’t have their organizations yet, and this fact limits their efficacy.
Babken: I think what is happening in Armenia and what is happening in Turkey have a lot of parallels. And there are a lot of issues between Armenia and Turkey that are unresolved and the people on top are not going to solve them because it’s in their interest not to solve them.
Buket: Of course.
Babken: The bridge between progressive and radical elements in Armenian and Turkish societies needs to be strengthened so that we can solve the issues between Armenia and Turkey with a progressive agenda, with an agenda based on justice. Otherwise it’s just not going to happen. I mean it really is up to us to solve these issues. And that is the way to do it, I think.
More from The Squares and Beyond partnership.Country or region: Armenia Turkey Rights: CC by NC 4.0
For now, thanks to surreptitious symbiosis, it is possible to do sustained activism to bring about social change, without becoming part of a ‘civil society industry’. From the Squares and Beyond partnership.
Protest against TTIP. Demotix/Rachel Megawatt.All rights reserved.The emergence in 2011 of the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring and the anti-austerity and anti-capitalist movements captured the public’s imagination the world over.
From April-September 2013 we conducted research in Athens, Cairo, London and Yerevan and our aim was to build on and expand the existing research on these new movements, not only by including new sites (e.g., London, Yerevan) thus far overlooked by other scholars, but also by examining the relationship of the activists with more formal civil society actors including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, and political parties.
While media and academic coverage have suggested that the protestors were ordinary citizens who had little or no connection with formal civil society organisations, we wanted to look a little deeper into the situation: to ask, how do today’s activists relate to ngo's? Is it possible to do sustained activism to bring about social change without becoming part of a ‘civil society industry’ through fundraising structures and engagement with government?
Based on our research in four very different settings, we found some common trends in the ways in which highly institutionalized and highly spontaneous actors interact. We discovered that while at first glance, ngo’s seem disconnected from recent street activism, this assessment was only partially correct and that the situation is more complicated.
While ngo’s did not initiate the demonstrations in any of the cities where we conducted fieldwork or indeed play an active role in square occupations, there was ngo involvement behind the scenes. Ngo’s provided non-monetary resources and individual ngo employees participated in their personal capacity. The boundaries between the formal ngo’s and informal groups of activists blurred, and there was much more cross-over and collaboration than meets the eye.
Here are some of the main findings in our explanation of this phenomenon, which we call surreptitious symbiosis.Surreptitious symbiosis
We found that activists often revile ngo’s for their relationship to power and money, and what many described as their loss of values and mission. But on closer consideration, the relationship between activists and ngo’s turned out to be a more complex. Activists rely on ngo’s for technical support for things like meeting space and printing to avoid direct reliance on the material logic of fundraising, and at times even for legal aid.
Individuals involved in activism, meanwhile, also sometimes work for ngo’s, often relying on them for their expertise. Those who do work for ngo’s often experience them as constraining, supporting protest and direct action networks. Junior ngo staff and occasionally senior staff do participate in these networks to escape the constraints imposed, implicitly or explicitly, by their ngo employers. We found that although some activists roundly rejected and criticized the ‘managerialism’ of ngo’s, other activists recognised that their activities took a more institutional shape, but were creating alternative spaces as well as new practices and forms of organizing which preserved the ideational and emancipatory logic of activism.
Activists continue to denounce and in some cases, openly oppose, ngo’s that have embraced the material and coercive logics of the market and state respectively. Yet alongside the critiques and denunciations, there are also mutually-beneficial, albeit ‘below the radar’, interactions between ngo’s and activists.
Thanks precisely to this phenomenon of surreptitious symbiosis, we found that it is possible to do sustained activism to bring about social change without becoming part of a ‘civil society industry’. But can this be sustained in the longer term? The current relationship between activists and ngo’s, based on individual ties, is one which both sides are typically keen to keep under the radar. It allows ngo staff to engage with and support movements and activists and to feel as though they are making a difference without having to make that relationship public. For ngo’s, given the growing competition for funding and pressure from both governments and donors in which ngo’s are required to demonstrate their professionalism and efficiency, being too close to movements that are radically critical of governments could be seen as endangering ngo contracting relationships or grant-based support. Butthis approach was also convenient for activists as it allowed them to present themselves as entirely distinct from ngo’s, remaining ‘clean’ and autonomous in their own eyes and those of others.
Is ‘surreptitious symbiosis’ a temporary or a lasting phenomenon? Below we sketch three, not mutually exclusive, scenarios.
Ngo’s and movements: three possible scenarios
In the first scenario, our cyclical logic would predict that those activists who have continued to be active, a few years on from the peak of the movement, will increasingly seek new ways to fund or be funded, and to (re-)engage with the state and its policies. Both of these processes are occurring as some movements attempt to institutionalize and scale up. Still, these forms of institutionalization are perceived by the activists as different from ngo’s, just as ngo’s are different from the trade unions or political parties who used to be much more prominent actors in civil society.
Our second scenario focuses on the emancipatory potential of the ngo staff that have immersed themselves in recent activism. This tendency, combined with pressure from outside on ngo’s to prove their continued relevance, may rejuvenate and re-radicalize NGOs from within, challenging the cosy relations some ngo’s have with donors and the state and instead emphasizing reconnection with grassroots activism. This optimistic scenario would require not only the participation of individual (junior) staff, but also shifts in ngo leadership and organizational culture which may be difficult to achieve. In this scenario the symbiosis would become more sustained and lose its surreptitious character.
Finally, in a third scenario, if ngo’s cannot be rejuvenated and re-radicalized from within, then the opposition between activist groups and ngo’s may grow. It is clear that the future of ngo’s is under threat: after a decade of virulent criticism, distrusted by governments and the general public alike, in a hostile financial climate, they may have outlived their purpose, and may wither, die or become hybrid organisations such as social businesses.
While for some activists this would be a vindication, the demise of ngo’s could also have an unexpected indirect impact on the more radical activism that has sought to distance itself from the lure of money and jobs, but has surreptitiously also relied on it. In other words, despite activists’ criticism and their uneasy relationship with ngo’s, the demise of the latter would be the loss of a valuable kind of ally.
It remains to be seen whether the move towards institutionalization which we are beginning to witness can – as the activists themselves insist - be distinct from older patterns of ngo institutionalization.
For the full version, see “Surreptitious Symbiosis: Engagement between activists and NGOs” by Marlies Glasius and Armine Ishkanian, published in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations.Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox:
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For too long we have regarded participation and representation as mutually exclusive concepts. From the Squares and Beyond partnership.
Rosemary Bechler (RB): Was there anything that you found particularly thought-provoking said here today?
Paolo Gerbaudo (Paolo): One key topic of discussion, which is also feeding into a more general debate among activists is the whole issue of political ‘organisation’. On the one hand, there are people who are still defenders of horizontality; then there are NGO representatives trying to defend more organised forms of civil society; and the people who have had experience of political parties and who hope that Podemos might constitute a new format of a party that is very promising going forward. I feel that this is a debate that we really need to have.
It is far too easy for people to fall into these binaries that can be very sterile, I mean these geometrically perfect metaphors such as horizontal vs. vertical; hierarchy, network. It is interesting to see a learning process going on. Take the activist Noam Titelman from Chile, who reported that in his country neo-horizontality is now being deployed even in very vertical organisations as a sort of PR formula, so that basically Leninist organisations feel that being horizontal is ‘so cool’, that they are eager to go out there, pretending they have horizontal democratic structures. The people from Greece have been talking about the difficulties for people in the social movements to deal, for example, with Syriza, but simultaneously that they too are beginning to be more pragmatic and thinking about funding. Something that constituted a red line for the Occupy wave is at least now acceptable as a point of discussion. This question of organisation is possibly the most strategic issue of all at this juncture. It’s not by chance that this has constituted a major part of our discussions today.
RB: If you want to set the reductive horizontal/vertical binary to one side, how would you approach analysing the contrast that Jordi Vaquer describes in his reading of Spain’s recent regional and local elections, “The contrast between somewhat disappointing regional results, where Podemos ran under its own name, and the success of the civic lists, where Podemos joined other parties and civic groups under shared labels…”?
Paolo: As Anthony Barnett mentioned in discussion, the fact that Spain is an amazing laboratory for organisational political forms is very true. So much so that at this point in time we should definitely be keeping an eye on what is happening in Spain because it is a kind of cultural and political vanguard. It is the place where the social movements have been the most successful with the population in terms of their creativity and also in terms of projecting this power into what in Spain is called, ‘the assault on the institutions’. It is not easy to render this engagement visible, as understood in the old, quite moderate way which involved us saying, ‘Alright, we are just sitting here with this politician, or with this policy maker…’ No – ‘we don’t want to discuss, we want to take this decision for ourselves. They don’t represent us – but we are going to represent ourselves.’ You can understand this sort of feeling.
Of course there is a huge diversity of organisational ways and means going on in Spain. One shouldn’t deny these different trends.
Podemos is the first political organisation to have demonstrated that these sorts of institutions could be a successful strategy. They have gone from 8 percent support in the European elections of May 2014 to a situation in which they are approaching 20 percent. But then there is this municipalist tendency which we saw in the success of Ahora Madrid, Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comu and which has evidently some different elements. One thing it does share is a populist element in this discourse. So for example Ada Colau refers to the scenos, to the neighbours, to the inhabitants of the city – that is a populist category – not the citizens, the folk or the people – but the inhabitants of Barcelona. At the same time, compared to Podemos, they have more of an emphasis on a kind of radical participatory character. Internally, Barcelona en Comu also utilised consensus-based decision-making. Now they are talking about consulting the citizenry on every decision.
It is not that Podemos doesn’t have an element of that. Podemos also has quite a strong libertarian element. In fact many of the leading activists of Podemos come from anarchist movements rather than socialist movements and it is quite striking the way they have applied participatory elements in their own structure. For example, the circles which constitute one of the most important organisational structures of Podemos are basically the assemblies of 2011 turned into party branches. And you have the regional days when all the members of the party can vote and so on. The difference is that they have more of a sense that you need strong leadership as well as strong participation. So that on certain issues you need to delegate to the leader for strategic reasons. I feel that the difference is not as big as it might seem at first sight.
Moving on From the Squares discussion. LSE, 2015. All rights reserved.RB: There are critics in the 15M movement who accuse Podemos of wanting to absorb every radical initiative into their own ranks and sort of appropriate it – that they can’t tolerate working with other power centres and decision-makers…
Paolo: The relationship between civil society and political society is always very complex, between movements and parties, to use the terms Noam deployed today, between social militancy and political militancy. Having said that, to describe Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comu as capable of taking power without any form of mediation is wrong. Because it is not that their people move directly from the squares to taking over the cities. These are political formations which obviously incorporate many people who were in the squares. But in those squares were many more people who didn’t vote for those formations. The movements were much wider, much broader in their composition and their overt support than these formations will ever be. The same applies to Podemos only more so.
So what you see in the personal and political conflicts at the interface between these formations are power dynamics that we have always seen in politics, and that are in a way ineliminable. Podemos has made quite a point of seeing hegemony as the key concept for the construction of progressive politics. And hegemony means that you need to construct a centre, and a unifying process that obviously produces groups of people who are in competition with each other over who will build that centre. There will be forms of cooption, co-optation and so forth.
There is nothing wrong with that, but the problem is that we are living in a time that is not used to it. We are not used to the possibility of taking power. We are not used, as people coming from the left in contestatory protest movements, to dealing with these problems. We have no kind of moral grid to basically say what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, what are the red lines that can never be crossed.
RB: We are not used to taking power is what you are saying? Well may I cite another oD article, an open letter written on the Greek island of Samos by a constituent to his Syriza MP which says, roughly, “ Whatever happens between you and the Troika – please don’t forget to come and help unleash our energies for changing Greece together with you…” Isn’t that the real challenge, to empower the people in a different way?
Paolo: I completely see your point. I think that for too long we have regarded participation and representation as mutually exclusive concepts. Either you are in social movements fighting for a radical change, or you have settled for representation – therefore you just content yourself with a small place in the parliamentary system.
Actually, the possibility that we see now is what we could call participatory representation – that is finding a new combination between the strategic means of leadership of representative politics, and grassroots energy. The new wave of democratic parties needs strong participation from below – because without strong participation of this kind, we cannot overcome the major enemies that we face and there is no moral legitimacy for our taking bold political action.
At the same time, participation alone can turn into what Christopher Lasch in 1979 called, "The Culture of Narcissism", in which participation becomes an end in itself, a religious thing which is not basically narcissistic, so much as it reduces that process to people’s experience of self-realisation through participating in political processes. The greatest single rewarding experience people get from participating in Occupy or indignados, is the experience of being heard by other people, feeling part of the community – and that is a great experience. I don’t want to bar people from enjoying that experience. But the crucial thing is that this cannot be the end goal of activism. The processes should lead to some external outcomes – to structural change, right? Otherwise what we are doing is just basically enjoying ourselves in our world of self-realisation.
RB: openDemocracy is here to create a platform for a transnational conversation about activism and political renewal. Do you think you saw the evidence today that this is good timing for such a project?
Paolo: Definitely now is a moment in time in which we need strong transnational debate, and in which outlets for debate on the left are somehow drying up. I was writing regularly for Il Manifesto on these subjects, a left newspaper launched in the 1970s – but its readership has been shrinking and shrinking and ageing. It is however this twentieth century leftwing culture, I think, that is drying up. With no schadenfreude, I would like to say – it’s not that we need to party because of the death of the left. No – what we need is to construct a new progressive politics and for doing that we need new spaces for intellectual debate.
These spaces are few at the moment, and openDemocracy is one that has the advantage of being recognised by many people as a sort of unifying arena, right? Many people who share a certain political view in very broad terms, can have an intellectual debate which is sufficiently debated, but also popular enough, plain enough in terms of language, to reach out beyond the very narrow scope of academic articles which we waste so much time on. It should be part of what we do, but then we have a commitment to public impact which we should also fulfil.
I would like to use such a space to understand these movements within a historical trajectory, their roots, how the different political traditions encounter each other. Then there is digital protest culture. What are the new forms in which to express grievances, demands and a movement’s values, in a digital context?Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox:
More from The Squares and Beyond partnership.Related stories: The people united: on the populism of the Mediterranean purple wave Rights: CC by NC 4.0
Too often women's oppression is sidelined as a lesser cause, and women's experiences dismissed, as two cases in Sweden and Norway show.
On the 22nd of June this year, politician Amineh Kakabaveh wrote an article in one of Sweden's major daily newspapers, Expressen, on the worsening situation for women in Sweden’s poor suburbs. As a representative for the socialist leftist party Vänsterpartiet in the Swedish parliament, and a resident of one of Stockholm’s ethnically diverse, working class suburbs, she is well informed about the situation. Kakabaveh described in her own words how Muslim men increasingly tell women and girls how to appear and behave, directly or indirectly, which prevents women and girls from moving freely. She was only one of many women telling the story of increased oppression and social control of women in the suburb and of the need for direct feminist action on the matter, asking for involvement from the government.
The most debated response to Kakabveh’s outcry came a week later, in the form of an article from three high-ranking politicians within Vänsterpartiet. The authors refer to Kakabaveh’s stories of oppression as “rumour spreading”. They claim that it is through the class divide and unequal distribution of wealth that these reactionary fundamentalist tendencies flourish, and that by singling out a single religious group as oppressive, we encourage those tendencies. The argument goes: we need to bring about economic equality in society as a whole, and prioritise the working poor of the suburbs, and then gender equality will be accomplished automatically, without direct action. The story is well known to women within the left – after the revolution, we will all be equals. So stop nagging about feminism in the meantime. For the authors, like many on the left, feminism and gender parity is a secondary concern to class struggle.
A similar debate occurred in Norway in 2010. Sweden and Norway share many cultural, historical and political similarities, making comparisons suitable. In Norway women and men told of harassment from what will later be named “the moral police”, in the inner city immigrant community of Grønland, in Oslo. Women described how Muslim men would openly tell them to cover up. The debate was mainly about what political measures to take, rather than a silencing of the women's concerns or a right-wing excuse to attack immigration. The Norwegian socialist party, Sosialistisk Venstreparti, responded with outrage at the stories told, and showed solidarity with the women and men who told of social control in their neighbourhood. They chose to support women and men in the fight for bodily autonomy, freedom of movement, and freedom of religion, and by doing so effectively signalled that the fight against gender oppression is a priority for the party, rather than an afterthought.
When the debate over the “moral police” in Norway took off, Sosialistisk Venstreparti did talk of economic equality as a means to achieve gender equality. But there was never any doubt as to what the reaction towards the women telling their stories would be: solidarity, belief, and confidence in their narrative.
The political situation in contemporary Sweden is precarious. The racist and neo-fascist party Sverigedemokraterna, (Swedish Democrats), rose to 14.5% in the most recent polls, and created political chaos in the wake of the autumn 2014 general elections. As the party has made racist claims about the suburbs a hobby and theme, and claims to support Muslim women through a thinly veiled Islamophobia, social control of women and men in the suburbs has become harder to discuss. Feminist arguments for women’s liberation are held to ransom in the name of racism, and feminists are effectively disarmed and silenced. It is partly the fear of being accused of Islamophobia and racism that complicates the debate started by Kakabaveh this summer in Sweden: the debate becomes muddled and simplified, sidelining women in the process.
During the debate of 2010 in Norway, Fremskrittspartiet, an ultra-conservative party, similar to Sverigedemokraterna in several ways, showed support to the women who spoke out, as it aligned with their narrative of ”the oppressed Muslim women, who needed saving”. Neither Sverigedemokraterna, nor Fremskrittspartiet are interested in achieving gender equality, they are purely cherry-picking political points wherever they can be found to bolster Islamophobic arguments. In Norway, Fremskrittspartiet were not allowed to control the debate, as there was recognition of the problem by all parties on the political spectrum.
As feminists, we need to be able to recognise gendered oppression wherever it appears, and show solidarity with women and men who are victims, whatever their background and economic status. We need to be able to criticise patriarchal structures and cultures wherever they appear, even when that is within Muslim communities. We need to have the freedom to criticise Islamophobia and neo-fascism, and all gendered oppression, simultaneously.
Vänsterpartiet claims to be a socialist and feminist party – but this claim falls flat, when they demonstrate they are unable to show solidarity with all women who tell of gendered oppression. The balancing act of pragmatic socialist feminist thought and action is – to say the least – very hard in a complex political and social climate. Social control and oppression of women exists everywhere, and must be defeated - but the criticism of the same cannot be diminished because of a misplaced fear of being called racist.
The international left movement needs to abandon the obsolete idea that gendered oppression will disappear alongside the class system - after the revolution. It needs to believe women’s narratives and support feminism - before the revolution. Now.Sideboxes Related stories: Female Islamic leadership in Sweden The feminist parties redefining Scandinavian politics Is secularism bad for women? Rights: CC by NC 4.0
All the countries of those sitting around this table were born in genocide. In the case of Brazil, we were the world champion of slavery. So we are based on that! Sweet but violent. From the Squares and Beyond partnership.
Rosemary Bechler (RB): Stephanie, what do you think you will be able to take back with you to your colleagues in Mexico – I believe your organisation has its AGM shortly?
Stephanie Erin Brewer (Stephanie): Yes, our human rights centre is having its three year strategic planning meeting, and I was just reflecting on our mid-term elections when the invitation arrived. It is perfect timing and a great breath of fresh air to be forced to stop thinking about Mexico all day every day, and to seize on comparative experiences and to hear stories of hope as well.
Because several people mentioned that they do see a real change arising from the positive impact that some of the strategies that we have been discussing can have. We know that not all models can be applied in all places, but the fact that something good can happen somewhere is a very positive sign.
International human rights ngo’s, for example in the inter-American system of human rights, do talk to each other of course. Centroprodh is currently working alongside other similar Latin American ngo’s specifically on the right to social protest and laws that seek to outlaw or limit social protest and marching, documenting abuses against protesters. All of that focuses on the means rather than the end, but it is a problem we have in the wider region and we have a regional thematic hearing on that subject at the Inter-American Commission that we are collaborating on.
RB: That clampdown seems to be happening worldwide…
Jean Tible (Jean): It’s greater maybe in Latin America for historical reasons. We elected Lula for example, in 2003. Since Lula was elected, one indigenous has been killed in Brazil every week. Whether you talk about the countryside or urban violence, we are killing a generation of citizens and people engaged in struggle. All the countries of those sitting around this table were born in genocide. In the case of Brazil, after that we were the world champion of slavery. So we are based on that! Sweet but violent.
Stephanie: What we heard from Robin about the referendum moment in Scotland was very inspiring in terms of occupying not just spaces and streets, but imaginations – the need to focus on pushing people to think of the adjacent possibility, the future that is possible.
Because in Mexico, something we do a lot which it is necessary to do, is to document and denounce all the terrible acts of violence and oppression and the violations of human rights that are happening, and that the people are actually living directly. So it is easy to project horror and negativity. But that can just overwhelm people and cause them to shut off rather than mobilise. When you focus on giving them something positive they can visualise themselves working towards, that is going to have more chance of rousing them to action. It’s great to have such a forceful reminder of that part of the equation.
RB: You are talking about how best to counter the major piece of work that regimes do to maintain the sense that ‘there is no alternative’, as we see in the treatment of Greece at this moment, and that this has to be a profound work of the imagination as well as a set of concrete actions…
Noam Titelman (Noam): I have the feeling that when the indignados movement started in Europe and similarly with the Occupy movement, to be completely honest, Latin American activists and leftists viewed it with some scepticism. In some Latin American countries, they were embracing different versions of twenty-first century socialism, or more traditional movements, such as the Chilean movement or the Workers Party approach, where the basic principles were still the same albeit with a certain amount of renewal.
And what has happened I think in the last six months or a year is that the pendulum of the rising left in Latin America has started to turn around. More and more of the left leaders in Latin America feel themselves getting weaker and with them the leftwing projects. We are looking with more interest at what is happening in Europe - at Podemos for example, but also other initiatives. We are starting to rethink, perhaps with more openness, some of the ideas being discussed here. This is interesting because the indignados, I believe, were largely inspired by Latin American movements… so it is a very interesting dialogue in that sense.
It is of course a mistake to think of the left as a homogenous force. But in all its different varieties it is starting to encounter difficulties in Latin America, whereas in Europe, the crisis of the centre left parties is pretty clear, but what is appearing in their stead is less clear. Some monsters are appearing in that shadowy time when what is dying hasn’t quite finished dying and what is being born has not yet emerged.
Jean: In a way the left that emerged in South America was a bit of an exception in the world. Because wherever you look, apart from Chile which is maybe an exception in this exception – in the rest of the world the inequalities were increasing, but not actually in South America.
But Brazil is now facing something more similar to the European crisis. It is useful to think in terms of struggle cycles I think. We have one cycle which was that of the ‘new social movements’ at the end of the 70’s and in the early 80’s, including the Workers Party, the trade unions, the black movement, feminist movement, student movement and so on, and this cycle had an institutional outcome in the victory of Lula.
But the good things that Lula as a collective person brought about led to a good problem – it helped to produce a new generation of the newest movements who find themselves acting both with and against the ‘new social movements’. We have an old left and a new left. The division is not good, but union between them is not possible because they come from different worlds.
Some of us have tried to bridge the gap – I’ll give you an example. With the Arab Spring, some of the Latin American left were against the Arab Spring and made their stand with Gaddafi or with Assad, not of course with Mubarak. We have to understand that Gaddafi, despite all his awful traits, and with a thousand quotation marks, was to them a “”Third world leader””, and that Mandela, when he left prison, chose to make his first visit to Libya.
We have to understand that the leftwing government in Venezuela thinks of all these global uprisings as a conspiracy against the left, in Ukraine, in Syria - wherever. So it is interesting listening to Noam. The situation in Brazil is very interesting in this regard, because the new generation of movements seems to want more. We have just begun in fact to struggle against the inequalities – which in Brazil are racial inequalities first and foremost.
If you go to a restaurant, or a university, or a hospital or a big company in Brazil, you know immediately who is working in a high position and who in a lowly one by the ‘chromatic’ of skin colour. We have a new generation who wants to go further in changing this, but we are facing some profound difficulties. We have been distributing new money in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil through the increased sale in commodities, but now we have to start taking money off the rich. This is not easy in countries where the powerful elite has all the power. Even if you don’t like the Guardian, you have to recognise what a difference it makes if you don’t have anything like this, or the BBC. So if you want to take the imaginary of the Brazilian debate – we are in a very difficult situation.
Of course, thanks to the internet, we have a sort of democratisation of the public debate. But we are struggling in a very unequal feud. Because in the country as a whole, Brazil still has a slave mentality, even today.
Noam Titelman, 2012. Demotix/Mario Tellez. All rights reserved.RB: There seems to be a different quality of class solidarity, for example in Chilean demands in 2013 for a free quality education system for all… ?
Noam: It is interesting to see a graph of wealth in Latin American countries. Basically there is very little difference in income between the poorest ten per cent and the richest of the 90%. The real difference is the wealth of the richest 1 – 10%. When one talks of middle class, it is not so different from lower class – they are just better educated and they have better access to debt. This was interestingly in fact one of the things that initiated mobilisations and the uprisings in Chile in 2011.
There is a strong tradition of the left in Latin America which perhaps doesn’t have to manifest itself quite so dramatically, because it doesn’t live quite so closely to the problems as the left does in Europe. But for us the paradigm of extreme left, good or bad, is Cuba, whereas in Europe it is the Soviet Union. One can disagree with the kind of government Cuba has but it obviously isn’t the same as that of the Soviet Union. So in Europe, the left is always having to explain something, to answer for the genocidal history of the Soviet Union.
Secondly, the income distribution in Latin America is so unequal that perhaps that facilitates solidarity in a sense even though, as Jean said, that means that the elite has even tighter control over the mass media. In Chile for example, there are two main political groupings, both of them right wing and they own all of the major newspapers.
The other factor I think is that during the last decade, when the big subprime crisis that rocked Europe and the United States didn’t hit Latin America – I remember seeing that part of the world undergoing the same situation that Latin America had gone though in an earlier period, with a certain degree of satisfaction, remembering the enormous amount of advice that we had to endure at the time, and here they were with the same problems. That was really amazing. And it was accompanied by the boom in commodity prices that helped the rise of the Latin American left in all its variant versions. But now that that is gone, a whole new question arises about the next phase.
Latin America has to face head on the middle income trap, whereby the very same institutions that enabled us to pass from being low income to middle income countries, are now today making it difficult for us to continue on this path. They have been coopted strongly by an elite who simply don’t want to share their power with anyone. That is today’s struggle and they have a lot of force on their side.
Zizek has this story about a father telling his sons to visit their grandmother on a Sunday. One way the father could say this would be, ‘Look you have to go and see your grandmother. I don’t care if you want to or not. And if you don’t go, I’ll punish you.” The other way is to say, “Look, go see your grandmother. You know she loves you and that it would make her happy. But only if you want to.” Both, Zizek says are relationships of force between the father and the son. But the second is even stronger because it involves not only having to go and see your grandmother but having to want to go. This is how ideology in society works, and one becomes one’s own prisonkeeper in society as a result, defending the system as it is. Power works like that in our societies. That is the hardest barrier to pass. It is even stronger perhaps than power as an outright enemy. That too is what Jean refers to as the Brazilian imaginary.
RB: On the question of your interest in Podemos, what did you make of Simona Levi’s rather critical view of that party’s approach to hegemonic leadership – given the huge prestige of Ernesto Laclau’s thinking in Latin America (also in Spain)?
Noam: A very healthy experience for every left activist, militant or whatever is to attend many assemblies, and see what it feels like when an entire assembly goes against you – whether because they think you are too radical, or too moderate – but it is a very useful experience, and allows you to understand better that the true enemy is not the one inside, the guy one milimetre different from you – but the enemy out there. There is a tendency on the left to overestimate the relevance of the adversary next to you in comparison to the one on the other side. When I heard Simona talk I thought there weren’t that many differences between her and Podemos, but that she felt that the main obstacle to the changes she was formulating was in Podemos. But I disagree – that is not where the main adversary is.
Jean: That is one of the key questions of the generations. Podemos is very interesting. It is a reading of the Latin American governments. The leading team of Podemos have all paid a visit either to Bolivia or Ecuador or Venezuela. But a friend of mine jokes that Podemos captured the worst out of all of them!
Podemos is of course interesting because it places before us the challenge of political organisation – how to deal with the common citizen. For they are talking to everyone in Spain. That is populism of course. And they are telling the Spanish people, “We want to govern. We want to be the majority. We want to change the country.” Sometimes the left doesn’t even dare put to themselves this objective or this goal. Without the 15M Podemos would not exist. But Podemos is not the 15M. 15M announces a sort of savage democracy in the good meaning of the term. But that cannot survive – you have to have some form of mediation. It is the challenge of representation. In political philosophy, I am against representation. But in real life, you can’t avoid it if you want power, as you have also publicly stated, national power. That is interesting because Simona, while being critical of Podemos, was telling us that Barcelona en Comu was a good thing. But you cannot disassociate completely Podemos and Barcelona en Comu - that’s the point! Or Podemos and Ahora Madrid. That is interesting. Because as yet we don’t have an answer to this matter of political organisation.
Those guys were in the student movement and they created a party. They had an alliance with Bachelet on one topic, education. That is interesting because they are not in the government. But they are in the government. So as a generation we have to find our equilibrium, our balance between not being in an institution, and yet creating something tangible. You have to have this mediation.
Noam: What I find most interesting in Podemos is that the left had to find an answer to the defeat it has experienced over the last thirty years or so. And it has found two roads, two ways of doing this. The first was the third way, the renovation of socialism – what happened with social democracy, which was basically renouncing the left to save the left – which ultimately didn’t save much of the left – but it did renounce the left. The second way to confront this defeat which also failed to do anything but confirm it, was to overemphasise its symbolic relevance – enclosing one’s-self within the small battle which one knows one can win – or even if you lose – to remain with your sense of purity intact in losing the good battle.
What I like about Podemos is that it doesn't want to go along with either of these defeats. They want to get something done. I saw a very interesting interview between them and Chantal Mouffe, who wasn’t too sure about their ‘renunciation of left and right’ – but she said that she understood why they might say that, since so many movements have called themselves ‘left’ and have done anything but left politics. But she said, that the most important thing was to understand that even if you stop calling yourself left – that doesn’t mean that there is no left and right any more, any more than there is an end to good and bad economics, and you mustn’t renounce the fundamental conflict, the agonism in politics.
I found that very interesting, which of course doesn’t mean that every country in the world has to follow the same path as Spain, that again would be reductive. It does mean that there is an option which doesn’t fall into either of those two traps which constitute a defeat while trying to avoid defeat – and that is something that I do take away with me.
RB: So Stephanie, a last question I’d like to ask you since you spend a lot of time helping people in Mexico – what does empowerment look like to you?
Stephanie: This forms part of our core philosophy and we love to talk about it. As a starting point, surely we have all heard the phrase ‘strategic litigation’ – it can be good, but in Centreprodh we have a different philosophy – we don’t do strategic litigation. The reason is that those who do pursue this start with a plan for a case they’d like to litigate and go looking for a victim that they can use to achieve their end.
So, our model is called ‘integral defence’, and it is based on putting the person, or the community or the group at the centre and that person being the one who determines what his or her priorities and needs are, what strategy he or she wants to pursue, and so our role is to inform and to provide a range of tools.
People also arrive in our office usually, unfortunately, after suffering not only the original human rights violation in a context of whatever other structural violences that they were already living, but they then also don’t have access to justice. If they file a criminal complaint the case is not investigated, or maybe they are threatened for filing a complaint. They go to their national human rights commission and maybe the commission closes the file of their case without investigating. If it is a person who has been arbitrarily detained and tortured and put in prison for a crime they did not commit, they probably have a sentence they have appealed, they have filed a constitutional challenge, the public defender doesn’t answer their calls.
And so it is in those conditions of being denied their rights and their personhood that they then show up in Centroprodh. So we certainly hope to provide a completely different relationship and experience. And we consider that we accompany those people . They grant us the chance to accompany them in the struggle that they are leading in their own lives. And so we aim to discuss their situation with the person and see what they want to do.
So we don’t necessarily like the term ‘empowerment’ – we are very picky but some people think it has a paternalistic connotation. It maybe implies that they have no power and that you somehow do have it and are injecting the power into them, but the people who come to us have the most important power which is amazing bravery and perseverance, because simply defending your rights puts your own life at risk, and so that is the most important thing. We can’t do any of our work without those people. They could fight their fight without us, although they wouldn't have any of the tools that we can supply them with. But they would still be struggling. But we couldn’t do anything without those people. So that is our vision of how we relate to, and how we accompany the survivors who come to us.
Jean: I’m talking about Brazil, but it may go wider than this. What is important in the last three decades is that we have an empowerment of the poor people on the bottom of our societies. The situation is still awful. Now, young black people are still killed. But part of them do have more empowerment, in the sense that they are better able to denounce and to self-organise, and to put their demands on the agenda.Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox:
More from The Squares and Beyond partnership.Related stories: Social movement in Chile and the call for a constitutional assembly Theatre as justice: the fight for accountability in the streets of Mexico 'Sorry for the inconvenience, we are changing the country': Brazil Brazil: the nonchalant protester? Beyond samba and football: The Brazilian protests in context What do the Brazilians want: from the 2013 protests to the 2014 elections Civil resistance and the geopolitics of impunity 'Marca tu voto' for a constitutional assembly: Direct democracy in Chile’s 2013 presidential election Chile: protest for the “promised land” A call for the rally, ‘Plebiscite Now! Let the Majority Decide’ Mexico: active civil society key to ending culture of impunity Mexico's 2015 Elections - A citizen triumph? Mexico: student disappearances focus anger at abuse and impunity BRICS from below: counterpower movements in Brazil, India and South Africa Ayotzinapa: the events that shook the Mexican youth The people's permanent tribunal in Mexico: taking on structural violence Country or region: Mexico Brazil Chile Topics: Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics Rights: CC by NC 4.0
On 3 – 4 July 2015, the London School of Economics together with openDemocracy, hosted an international workshop titled Moving on from the Squares that brought together a wide range of actors including academics, movement activists, representatives of NGOs, foundations and think tanks along with political party activists and journalists for roundtable discussions and debates on the challenges in democratising politics; how the square movements have developed in the intervening years; and the relationship of movements with other civil society actors including NGOs, trade unions, political parties and the media.
The workshop, together with this webpage, is the outcome of an editorial partnership between myself, Armine Ishkanian (LSE – Department of Social Policy) and Rosemary Bechler, openDemocracy Editor and the Can Europe make it? team. This partnership builds upon and substantially extends the reach and scope of the findings from the Reclaiming democracy in the square: interpreting the movements of 2011-2012 research project I led together with Marlies Glasius from the University of Amsterdam (report). What is distinctive about this editorial partnership is that it brings together academic rigour, depth and an already engaged network of activists with the editors who have the skills to create a wider conversation.
The workshop was organised around three roundtables. A chaired discussion between roundtable panellists was opened up to all participants. This format allowed for a lively discussion about the exceptionalism or ‘newness’ of these movements and their continuities with past movements; the commonalities and differences between movements across the globe; the challenges facing movements as they seek to influence wider policy and political developments; and the relationship between movement activists and NGOs, political parties and trade unions.
Antonis Vradis joins the discussion from Athens. (Armine Ishkanian - All rights reserved).
There was wide agreement among both academics and non-academics, that academics should strive to communicate and disseminate their research more broadly. Currently there is much public debate about “liberating” research from the publishing industry’s paywalls so as to make that knowledge more freely available and although we cannot make the full articles available via openDemocracy, we hope at least to share the best ideas and debates with the oD readers.
We live in a time of deep reconfigurations and social upheaval. It has been five years since the start of a major global movements’ wave when masses of people, feeling unrepresented by those who govern or claim to represent them took to the streets and squares to voice their anger, indignation, and demands for a more equal and just future. While new movements continue to emerge, many questions remain about the broader or longer term impact and achievements of the protest movements from 2010.
The issues and problems which brought people into the streets and squares in the first place, whether in Athens, Cairo, Madrid, or New York City, have not been adequately addressed let alone resolved. The anger and indignation with the lack of democracy and social justice as well as the persistent corruption and inequality which fuelled the initial demonstrations remain.
The main aim of this editorial partnership is to create a platform which will be an open, transnational space to share academic research more broadly and to encourage on-going discussion both between the movements and about them, together with the challenges they face in democratising our politics.
Arab Awakening's columnists offer their perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East.
July 3 marks the two year anniversary of the ‘popular’ ouster of the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi.
It’s quite evident that Egypt’s state-run and privately owned media outlets are trapped in a web of biases; embracing president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his regime's perspective as they step into ethical and professional quandaries. Moreover, the imprisonment of journalists nationwide has reached a record high, mostly for reasons pertinent to their reporting.
In such a climate of frenzied bias, it's of perennial interest to observe the trends that have dominated the country's media landscape over the past two years, most notably during Sisi's first year in power.
1. Sex scandals and sorcery
Earlier this year the editor-in-chief of Tahrir News, Ibrahim Mansour, suggested that the government was giving direct instructions to media outlets to "cover sex scandals and other silly issues" to distract people from politics. Mansour's statement came a few weeks after 26 men were arrested during a televised raid on a Cairo public bathhouse.
The televised documentation of this raid couldn't have been possible without a tip off, because images of half naked men were broadcast as they were being arrested. TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, who covered the incident, hosts a program on the pro-government satellite channel Al-Qahira wal-nas. Coincidentally, the cases of "habitual debauchery" against these men were later dismissed.
Ironically, this same TV journalist, who unearthed "the biggest den of perversions in the heart of Cairo," posted a tweet few days ago in support of LGBT rights.
Similarly in mid-2014, another Egyptian talk show host, Reham Saeed, kicked an atheist guest off her live show for expressing scepticism of Islam. In the same year Saeed, in a desperate bid for TV ratings, brought "demonically possessed" children to television screens in an attempt to unabashedly tackle the nitty-gritty details of twins that turn into cats at night.
2. Graphic images
It's patently obvious that image selection has always been an ethical dilemma for journalists across the globe. In other words, it's deemed unethical to publish disturbing images of the dead and wounded. Taken in this light and in the throes of Egypt's ‘war on terror’, some local media outlets resorted to republishing graphic images released by the military, which depict corpses of militants killed in Sinai by soldiers.
Al-Youm Al-Sabea, Al-Bawaba and Al-Watan newspapers among others, sided with the government and focused their coverage on extolling the army's soldiers and documenting their victory. This trend has been reiterated more than once over the past two years of Sinai’s festering clashes.
3. In-credible sources
No one can deny the ever-rising media trend, in an age of web-based journalism, of relying on stories sourced from other journalists. However, all the blemishes and flaws of this trend have appeared in Egypt's local media, especially during bomb raids against ISIS in Libya in retaliation to the beheading of Egyptian Copts by a local franchise of the Islamic State.
The Kuwaiti writer and journalist, Fajer Al-Saeed, with her controversial tweets on Egyptian Air Force attacks in Libya is but a one example of this. After some of her predictions were accurate, she became a credible and reliable source for local media outlets. Being a conduit for secret information, just after the air strikes Al-Saeed kept posting tweets revealing alleged Egyptian military operations against ISIS in Libya in detail.
Egyptian media adopted all Al-Saeed's tweets and used them as if they were sourced from a military spokesman. Al-Watan, Al-Fajr, Al-Youm Al-Sabea and Al-Dostour, among other Egyptian newspapers, copied the tweets verbatim.
4. Slamming foreign media
After security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-ins in August 2013, Egypt's State Information Service (SIS) issued an English-language statement to foreign media excoriating their coverage of the events. The statement criticised foreign reporters of steering away from "objectivity" and "neutrality”, especially in their description of Morsi's ouster as a military coup and not an expression of popular will. Consequently, local media outlets adopted the government’s viewpoints.
The same trend was reiterated a few days ago when militants linked to ISIS attacked the military in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. In an interview with state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, the military's spokesman, Brigadier General Mohamed Samir, said the army “was fighting two wars": against the militants and the media.
Associated Press and other foreign news agencies said 64 Egyptian troops had been killed, whilst the army put the number at seventeen. As a result, General Samir reprimanded foreign agencies and other media outlets for reducing people’s morale by overestimating the number of dead soldiers.
Unfortunately, numerous local media outlets sided with the government and launched a deliberate attack against foreign agencies in an attempt to diminish the latter's credibility and reliability. Ironically, the privately owned newspaper Al-Watan published an article titled "five professional mistakes foreign newspapers made in covering Sinai's events".
5. Siding with the state
Under former president Mubarak, journalists were divided into two camps, either with the president or the opposition, but today most journalists are siding with the military government.
The Guardian recently published an article that highlighted the number of Egyptian TV presenters and journalists who are now mouthpieces for the government.
For example, Ahmed Moussa, one of the most popular TV presenters in the country, expressed his unconditional support for the military and president saying: "I would say anything the military tells me to say out of duty and respect for the institution". Similarly, TV host Mahmoud Saad said: "the military should never ever be covered...You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it. You don't know what will hurt national security."
Moreover, in an interview with Saba’a Ayam magazine, Egyptian talk-show host Wael El-Ebrashy said: "It's inappropriate to use the term objectivity nowadays; the country is in a state of war against terror. We can't be unbiased; we should all side with our country so peace and stability can prevail once more."
Given the fact that there’s a media blackout and almost fourty percent of the population is illiterate, parochial TV presenters are now shaping public opinion.
6. Media moguls and self-censorship
In the wake of January 25th Revolution, many Egyptian privately owned newspapers, TV channels and news websites were taking advantage of the atmosphere of chaos that afflicted the country at that time. These outlets instil a spurious sense of media freedom. However, Egyptian media is far from liberalised; these newly established media platforms are funded by the same cadre of well-known moguls who are aligned with the regime.
To illustrate, both Reem Maged and Yousry Foda, the two outspoken TV hosts who were known for their fierce criticism of the army and government, disappeared from screens shortly after Morsi's fall in 2013. ONTV’s owner, Naguib Sawiris, however, explicitly denied receiving any instructions from authorities to suspend Reem Maged's show, claiming that the reason was lack of funding from advertisements.
TV presenter Hafez Mirazi and the prominent political satirist Bassem Youssef also had their programs suspended. CBC pulled Bassem Youssef off air in November 2013, even though his program had the highest viewership in the Arab world.
7. Curtailing press freedom
Journalists have faced unprecedented repression over the past two years, especially during Sisi's first year in power. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently issued a report claiming that there are 18 journalists currently incarcerated—the highest number of journalists behind bars since it began keeping records in 1990. Most of these journalists are being accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The most outstanding case was that of the three journalists working for Al-Jazeera: Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, Mohamed Adel Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national.
They were arrested in late 2013 for "spreading false news and helping the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood." After spending more than a year in prison, Fahmy and Mohamed were freed on bail; nearly a fortnight after their Australian colleague was deported. On the whole, Freedom House watchdog group ranked Egypt 73 out of 100 in press freedom in 2015, compared to rankings of 68 in 2014 and 62 in 2013.
Though official censorship is not a tool the government has yet blatantly practiced, in May 2015 privately-owned Al-Watan newspaper was briefly shut down over a headline that was supposedly offensive to President Sisi. The newspaper’s front page headline was changed from “Seven entities stronger than Sisi” to “Seven entities stronger than reform.” An opinion piece by the newspaper’s managing editor, Alaa al-Ghatrify, was also censored. The newspaper was permitted to republish but only after the headline was adjusted and the column removed.
On the flip side, despite the fact that the 2014 Egyptian constitution includes several positive provisions related to freedom of expression, access to information and the media in general, there are still articles that can be used to put journalists behind bars.
These press laws and penal codes will reach a crescendo when a new anti-terrorism law is approved. This law will make publishing news that counters the official version of events in terrorism-related cases a crime punishable with prison sentences.
One can only hope that one day Egypt's media outlets will cherish the values of truth, objectivity, accuracy, and accountability, along with independence and freedom of expression.North Sinai and Egyptian media
Terrorist attacks have shaken Egypt to mark the second anniversary of the military coup—or at least this is what some claim. One wonders if it would have been any different had Morsi remained in power, as @salamamoussa points out in this tweet.
One reason it is doubtful that the 3 July anniversary is the motive behind the attack are recent encouragements by ISIS to intensify attacks during the holy month of Ramadan. ISIS was coming anyway—Morsi, Sisi or otherwise—and as we know their horrors are not restricted to Egypt.
As the situation continues to unfold, it is not the time to speculate about the ISIS affiliates' reasons for these fierce attacks. As usual (maybe even more than usual), rumors are flying around with beefed up images and numbers. Seeing that the great people from reported.ly are busy with the Greek Euro crisis, I decided to sum up a few of my findings.
What exactly happened
Around 9:15 AM CEST, I spotted a tweet by SkyNewsArabia saying that thirty Egyptian Army personnel had been killed and injured as North Sinai militants attacked Sheikh Zuweid. Muhamad Sabry, an Egyptian photojournalist based in North Sinai, had reported this earlier. This was alarming, as on 9 June, militants had already fired rockets at an airport in Sinai used by international peacekeeping forces. If confirmed, yesterday morning’s attack in Sinai would be the first major attack since January 2015, when the ISIS affiliate there, Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis), launched terrorist attacks killing tens of people.
The attacks were quickly described as “gun fire” and “car bombing”. There were conflicting reports on the number of casualties for quite some time. The Egyptian Army spokesperson first announced that ten soldiers were dead or injured, and 22 assailants dead. According to the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram, there had been no official death toll because ambulances had trouble reaching the injured and killed for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Then, things like this surfaced:
A suicide car bomb had exploded in a military checkpoint in Abu Rifai, located near Sheikh Zuweid. Things then escalated quickly as multiple IEDs were reported along with militants besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s police station and Egyptian F-16 army jets started flying over the area. Meanwhile, Mohannad Sabry, a Cairo-based freelance journalist, reported on events in Sheikh Zuweid:
According to army officials, two checkpoints were completely destroyed, one by the aforementioned suicide car bomb and the other by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. About 70 fighters simultaneously attacked these targets. A local news agency in Sinai reported that an Apache helicopter had been hit by militant fire and withdrawn (also reported by an “IS fanboy” eyewitness). The terrorist militants had also planted landmines on different streets in Sheikh Zuweid to prevent military vehicles from advancing. Of course, in the midst of this it is the civilians who suffer the most…
The terrorists’ goal is apparently to have full control over Sheikh Zuweid and to “to eradicate the military’s presence in Sinai”. The militants were said to have taken two military tanks, but I was not able to confirm this. The second captured military checkpoint was Abu Higag. Given the way the attack seems to have unfolded — suicide car bombs in multiple locations, RPGs on rooftops, IEDs and mobile weaponry (including 4WD vehicles with mounted machine guns) in various locations across a 60,000 inhabitant city —the assault is highly coordinated.
The violence spread to Al-Arish, North Sinai’s 'capital' city, and Rafah where explosions were reported. Reports at 3:30 PM CEST indicate that at least 35 people had been killed in the on-going attacks. Israel closed the Nitzana and Kerem Shalom border crossings with Egypt. Some ISIS fanboys were also cheering “we are coming for the Zionists” and “Sinai will be a Jewish cemetery” (I would rather not link to the tweets, there's no need to give these sick people more visibility).
And then, around noon CEST, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack saying that its militants had mounted 15 simultaneous attacks on military sites, including “martyrdom operations” on Al-Arish’s officers club and two checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid “in a blessed invasion”:
The statement also highlights that “eleven checkpoints and a police station in Sheikh Zuweid were attacked by militants using missiles”. A second statement was issued shortly after the first one, claiming that Wilayat Sinai “had besieged Sheikh Zuweid’s police station”. Ahram Online reported they had also “destroyed two military tanks and attacked four checkpoints using mortar rounds”:
A local woman and her 15 year-old daughter were killed, and five people from one family injured in the on-going clashes. People from Sheikh Zuweid also reported that militants were roaming the streets in vehicles with ISIS flags. Locals having witnessed the attacks report:
There were reports about Egyptian soldiers being taken hostage by militants, which I could not confirm. Policemen are however trapped in a besieged police station. In addition to the scale and coordination of the attack, what’s new is that Wilayat Sinai seems to aim to control land, not just raid the area.
From reactions on Twitter, with the Arabic hashtag for #SheikhZuweid trending, the operation is also a huge propaganda win for Wilayat Sinai and, vicariously, for ISIS. And if reports are accurate, the militants have gotten hold of major arms caches and have taken soldiers as prisoners.
Fake imagery spreads as the situation evolves
Tabloid Youm7 chose this awful moment to spread fake images of the attack:
They apparently decided that because people were reporting about terrorists firing RPGs from a building’s roof, they should publish a picture of a suspicious looking bearded man high up on a building. I checked it out and three minutes later, these are the results I found:
Then, super conveniently, a video emerged entitled “(VIDEO) Moment car bomb explodes in military post in North Sinai, Egypt”:
It was a fake: the video was first released back in 2013. Egyptian outlet El-Balad had posted a screenshot of it on 12 September 2013 describing it as a failed suicide car bomb attack on a military checkpoint in Al-Arish, North Sinai. El-Balad added that the car belonged to a bank and had been stolen three days prior to the attack. Lastly, the video itself was apparently first published by user ‘GlobalLeaks News’ on YouTube back in 2013.
And while we were all following conflicting reports over the exact death toll, @JanusThe2 posted this:
Sigh. There are many occurrences of this image, as seen from Google search, most of them from 12 November 2014:
Friendly warning: do not click on these links if you happen to find them online. Images accompanying ones of IEDs are extremely graphic.
Youm7 strikes again, quoting Sky News Arabia on the “60 martyrs from the [Egyptian] security forces” with this image:
This image is from a piece that listed the “30 Most Powerful Private Security Companies in the World”, dated 11 January 2014. The image, ill-sourced back to a Russian website, is associated with a PMC named the Northbridge Services Group.
It is also Masrawy’s turn to go through a swift verification process. They posted this tweet on this piece:
The image from the tweet is not one from today’s attack, although I could not find much on it:
The image Masrawy used in the news piece and which bears a caption along the lines of “Security services impose curfew in Sheikh Zuweid” is from 2013, if not before (as seen on this Iranian website):
In Cairo, reports indicated that Fast Reaction Forces and Central Security were deployed “in preparation for any acts of violence”.
These are the reports that surfaced in the first half of 1 July 2015.
How will Egypt's forthcoming anti-terrorism legislation impact what looks like an escalation of violence? Difficult to say, especially with the glaring lack of independent media, which is misinforming and keeping the people of Egypt in the dark.Tunisia – tug of war?
When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight on that fateful day in December 2010, he had no inkling that his act of self-immolation would engulf an entire region in sweeping protests. Yet four and half years on, as Seifeddine Rezgui calmly and meticulously gunned down his victims on a Sousse beach, we can safely assume that the wider consequences of his actions were not lost on him.
The attack on the Sousse beach, in which 38 tourists tragically lost their lives, was not just an attack on visiting westerners. It was an attack on the brave hotel workers and their industry, who desperately tried to shield their guests from the raging bullets of the murderous gunman. It was an attack on a hardworking builder, who courageously launched missiles of bricks and tiles, succeeding in knocking the gunman down to enable security forces to catch up to him. It was also an attack on Tunisia as whole, orchestrated to wreak havoc on a country that has come so far after overturning decades of dictatorship.
Since 2011, Tunisia has emerged as the sole success story of the Arab Spring. We waited with bated breath as Egypt flirted with democracy, before returning unrewarded to the tradition of tough military rule. We watched as Libya succumbed to violent struggles of power, the combination of weapons and a lack of authority proving a deadly cocktail for a country once showing promise. And we witnessed as Syria and Yemen slid deeper into the throes of civil war, providing a fertile ground for extremist elements to thrive. Through this all, Tunisia has shone brightly as the beacon of hope in the Arab world, principally guided beyond pitfalls by the willingness of the Islamist Ennahdha party to pursue compromise and conciliation across the political spectrum.
In January 2014, Tunisia earned praise for adopting a progressive constitution, enshrining the rights that were fought for in the Jasmine revolution. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, urged the people of Tunisia “to continue to inspire the world as they did some three years ago, and serve as an example for dialogue and compromise in resolving political disputes across the region and beyond”.
Tunisia has proved to the world that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy, marking the successful transition from despotism through two free and fair elections. Tunisians have placed their faith in the ballot box, despite attempts to steer them down a path well-trodden on by its neighbours. They have faced political assassinations, stagnating numbers of tourists and political deadlocks. All have threatened to derail Tunisia’s democratic transition, but none as much as this recent tragedy.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism contributed to 15.2 percent of Tunisia’s GDP in 2014, directly supporting 230,500 jobs and employing 6.8 percent of the total workforce. This attack sought to destroy the Tunisian economy, deliberately leaving it vulnerable to the tentacles of the extremists who feed on those with nothing.
Tunisia is now at a crossroads, facing the largest challenge to its democratic transition yet. How should it respond to such an atrocity without undermining the rights and freedoms that have been so resolutely fought for? Can Tunisia now negotiate the thin fine line of liberty and security without resorting to methods that characterise the old guard?
The horror that we witnessed was not simply confined to a stretch of white sand in Sousse, but it is a symptom of a growing terrorist threat that has gripped the world. It is an international phenomenon that requires an international response, and that includes supporting and reinforcing Tunisia’s security and stability.
Tunisia is stuck in a tug of war between those who wish it well, and those who wish it hell. If we in the west are truly the champions of freedom and liberty, then we must support those who have demonstrated their willingness to journey down the path of democracy. By murdering innocent tourists, Seifeddine Rezgui sought to extinguish the flames of hope and optimism that were ignited over four years ago. We must not allow this to happen.
This piece was first published on Al Huffington Post on 10th July 2015.Falling apart: a glimpse of life in Cairo
It has been almost seven years since I decided to leave my home, the once great city of Cairo. Since I moved to Europe I have been noticing changes in the city and its inhabitants, changes both subtle and sinister. This is, of course, to be expected, considering that the country went through the 'Arab Spring'. On my visit this time around, however, I found the change a lot more profound, and it struck me deeper than ever before.
Everything familiar is now gone; I feel like a stranger in my own city and neighbourhood. Four years after the start of the Egyptian revolt, and two years after the success of the counter-revolution, the city is lost to me.
This is a personal account of my experience on my last visit to my old home, and what it felt like to be in a country with the overbearing presence of a military dictatorship.
I had coffee with a friend and she asked me, “what is the most noticeable change you can see in the country?” I answered without hesitation, “poverty”. By this I do not mean poverty in the sense of a statistic, rather in sense of an increased level of social poverty among those considered economically comfortable.
Among the Egyptian middle class—the class I belong to—I noticed many indifferent and extremely demotivated faces. There is definitely a general deterioration in living standards. Traditional Egyptian middle class lifestyles, which were relatively comfortable, seem to have all but evaporated, especially for the younger generation, who are, due to economic hardship, being subsidised by their parents—often even if they are married with children.
The poor man in Egypt has become a two dimensional, almost fictional character.
On the other hand, ‘real’ poverty is even more hidden, due to the increased segregation, classism, and isolation taking place across the city with the spread of gated residential compounds. The humanity and suffering of the poor, the vast majority of Egyptian society, has become nothing more than background noise to the upper and middle classes. The poor man in Egypt has become no more than a two dimensional, almost fictional character.
Interestingly, this was reflected in television commercials during the holy month of Ramadan. Traditionally, these commercials are focused on food, as food consumption rises in Ramadan. However, food commercials are now non-existent. They have been replaced with commercials for residential compounds, places to isolate oneself from the city and from the poor of the city; commercials asking for donations to help the poor and sick, a way for the middle class to appease a guilty conscience; and propaganda for the new regime.
This dehumanisation of the poor is coupled with an unprecedented hike in consumerism, and the need to own the latest status symbols in a way that defies logic and basic rational economic behavior. The ‘need’ for iPhones, iPads, let alone designer brands has become paramount. I saw children no older than five years old holding their own iPads, which cost more than one-month’s salary of one of their parents. But what I found interesting is that when I discussed this with a friend, his reply was that social appearances needed to be kept up for the sake of the children.
Another more vivid example is the proliferation of new schools. All the schools we (my generation) attended are no longer good enough. Now children attend “international” schools that charge extortionate fees very few can afford, as it has become necessary for social status reasons. These schools not only charge astronomical fees, even by European standards, but are also very selective. They require, for example, knowledge of the English language (not Arabic) before the child is even enrolled, a contradiction to say the least.
These examples reflect the increased class segregation of Egyptian society, with the elite becoming narrower and their status symbols isolating them from the rest of society. This trend reached its zenith after the 2011 protests, when the upper classes attempted to shield themselves from the masses. The power of the middle class is waning as they yearn to join the upper classes but are unable to, so they try to compete in terms of status symbols.
I had an interesting discussion with a taxi driver about the increased ‘stability’ of the country. When I asked him what he meant by “stability,” he referred to the lack of protests and strikes. He referred to the crackdown that led to such “stability” as a positive development. This struck me deeply.
In Egypt, it seems that the suffering of thousands in prisons and mass death sentences are the concern of a small minority. Society is in denial about the events that occurred after the coup in 2013. In certain cases, major societal segments were complicit in these events; by either turning a blind eye or actively endorsing and defending them. Once again, those behind bars become two-dimensional characters whose suffering is their own.
The full scale of the human tragedy that is taking place in the country is like the elephant in the room nobody wants to acknowledge. Even the polarisation that one would expect to see and feel in the streets of the city is almost non-existent. It has all been driven underground by severe governmental and social repression, with major social segments repressing one another.
Finally comes the condition of my closest friends, middle class Egyptians, who are now in their late twenties and early thirties. Most of them have not reached stable financial positions, nor stable personal lives. The reasons for this are varied. The abundance of labour and the high levels of unemployment are depressing wages, and their salaries have not increased sufficiently to keep up with the rising costs of living and the increasing demand for social and status symbols to preserve their place among the ‘elites’.
In addition, the monopolistic nature of the Egyptian economy makes prices inelastic, and lower demands do not push prices down for both basic and non-basic goods. Thus, life has become more expensive, social demands are higher, and as such, leaving home becomes almost impossible.
The focus on social prestige has become paramount.
Also, on the personal level, divorce rates and failed relationships have reached very high levels. The increased focus on status symbols and the commodification of marriage, where the groom is expected to meet a number of increasingly arduous financial and status obligations, has turned human relationships into financial transactions.
The focus on status and social prestige has become paramount, while the human element has faded away. In other words, there is an increased dehumanisation of relationships between men and women in Egypt, a process that has led to greater levels of social instability, divorce and broken homes. This has spread among the middle classes due to an increased urge to join the upper classes and the need to distance themselves from the lower classes.
In the end, one can safely conclude that the failure of the Egyptian revolt has accelerated these trends. I cannot recognise the city any more nor can I connect with the people the way I used to. I am slowly but surely becoming a foreigner in my own country; a strange sense of estrangement from the place you love the most.
This feeling, however, is not unique to me. It is prevalent among the Egyptians who never left the country and are struggling with the trauma of social upheaval, massacres, and repression. A trauma that they themselves have not yet acknowledged, and more importantly have not understood the dimensions and depth of. There is a sense of alienation from oneself, a promotion of the worst in us. There is also a strange sense of both material and spiritual decay in the city. Things are literally falling apart.Whatever is happening to the Egyptians? (Part three)
By Aliyah Tarek
I have been following Hesham Shafick’s articles on the evolution of the upper-middle class in Egypt (Whatever is happening to the Egyptians, parts one and two) and have been pondering the questions asked at the end of the second article:
“Why did the new upper middle-class choose to isolate itself from the country to which they belong? Was this a deliberate choice or rather enforced by exogenous political and market forces?”
The answers to these questions have become more evident since Shafick and Saad asked them. A quick review of newspaper headlines, television ads, and social media will reveal the political role this new class plays.
Members of this class are members of the same foundations that broadcast advertisements asking for donations for the poor in Upper Egypt or for the children’s cancer hospital. These ads were at an all time high with everyone glued to Ramadan television series, and are broadcast seconds after compounds like "Mountain Views' projection of the suffering of classy humans who live around barbarians in need of an escape;” as Shafick and Saad put it.
Thus, this class will happily pay 5 EGP to save a cancer patient or feed a needy family, but will also pay millions to live far away from them. What is bewildering is that it does not see the contradiction between the two ads. This love-hate relationship it has with the rest of Egyptian society, of course, serves the interests of the political-ruling class perfectly. The lower classes, however, can’t even afford to think of contributing 5 EGP towards a charitable cause or buying a flat in Cairo, let alone a villa on the north coast, as they struggle to put food on the table for their families.
A brief history
Nasser’s socialist era had public spending at its core, making state sponsored jobs and subsidised goods available.
During Sadat’s rule, the economic crisis that followed the oil boom compelled him to give up Nasser’s socialist policies and cut back on state spending—since there wasn’t enough of a tax-base to support government programs. Sadat sided with market tycoons, with the goal of supporting an empty state treasury with their taxes. His infamous infitah policies opened up Egypt’s economy to capitalist practices. Thus, in one way or another, he reinstated the old bourgeoisie that Nasser had dismantled.
Sadat lived the worst of his nightmares three years before his assassination. The streets were full of bread-rioters condemning cuts on subsidies and the Nasserists rocked his throne with the January 1977 riots. It was obvious that Sadat had failed politically and economically. His excessive ease in dealings with business tycoons made him lose control over the economy, as the Ottoman Khedives did from the Pashas. The economy weakened and the tax collection authority was plundered.
Mubarak had to account for Sadat’s political and economic failures, but the international order and government capabilities stopped him from taking the Nasserist route. He created a class that could contest the socioeconomic power of Sadat’s Pashas (old bourgeoisie), while not aligning themselves with the Nasserist opposition.
This is the class of gated communities. They have compassion towards the society to which they once belonged (lived amongst, befriended, etc. as Shafick’s article highlights), but are not part of anymore. The political elites’ survival became dependent on playing favourites with this class. The goal was to provide special privileges in return for loyalty.
This class is safely ‘gated’ as far away as possible from workers and peasants, but are not enemies of the proletariat. Most importantly, they speak both languages: they are members of the bourgeoisie who live in A-class gated communities, but can still relate to the national agenda and their middle-class ‘ancestors’.
Sisi’s policies show inclinations to Mubarak’s. Again, it doesn’t seem to be a choice as much as it is an obligation due to Egypt’s current political situation.
Sisi needs to isolate this upper-middle class as much as he can to avoid any threats of an uprising. Thus gated communities boom, the new capital (at least as an idea), and other pro-rich projects continue to evolve. But he also needs the funds to feed and silence the masses; thus the creation of the Ta7ya Masr fund and the boom in charity organizations are a necessity.
In a nutshell, all leaders take the steps necessary to generate legitimacy for the survival of their regime; Nasser enlarged the public sphere, Sadat nurtured the old bourgeoisie, Mubarak started a strategy of segregation and Sisi seems to be following in his footsteps.
Here I propose a synthesis between Shafick’s and Galal Amin’s arguments. The first affirms that the whole isolation process revolves around the upper-middle class’ psychology. Today’s generations are growing up in gated communities and attending private educational institutions; they are subconsciously following their families’ footsteps and will remain alienated from the rest of society, in an attempt to maintain their privilege. As such, the upper middle class can be safely classified as a class that is living a false consciousness, alienated from the struggles of the lower middle class. However, this did not occur organically; political influences acted as a catalyst.
This is where Amin complements Shafick’s argument. I can imagine Amin echoing Clinton’s funny slogan “it is the economy, stupid.” It is the economy, or rather the political economy that created the demand. Samer Soliman would say: “the state systematically segregated the society” (refer to his classic, The Autumn of Dictatorship). This new class began to develop this “orientalist” perception of the less-privileged “other”; a mixture of disdain and sympathy (which Shafick vividly depicted).
This phenomenon was not triggered by western “orientalist” values—the majority of gated communities in the US belong to the upper class not the upper middle class—but rather an intended political strategic tactic to generate legitimacy for Mubarak’s regime.
The regime in power intentionally re-structured the classes, and Mubarak’s government played an active role in the stratification of Egyptian society and elevated citizens to the status of upper middle class in return for loyalty and support.
It has yet to be seen how Sisi’s current regime influences and/or identifies with the upper middle class. However, Mubarak’s shadow still lingers within the upper middle class and it doesn’t seem to be fading.Sideboxes Related stories: Seven trends dominating Egyptian media North Sinai and Egyptian media Tunisia – tug of war? Falling apart: a glimpse of life in Cairo Whatever is happening to the Egyptians? (Part three) Country or region: Egypt Tunisia Rights: CC by NC 4.0
The professionalization of human rights organizations is only effective if management adapts their strategies. An amateur mentality simply will not work. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on internationalizing human rights organizations. Français
Carrie Oelberger's concerns that the professionalization of human rights organizations is shifting the values of its employees are not without merit. As first a line manager, and then the human resources director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—an organization that protects victims of international and internal armed conflicts, and is a three-time Nobel Prize Laureate—I have certainly seen this evolution of career advancement and the tensions that can arise. However, many of the changes she discusses are not only positive, but highly necessary. Amateurism in international human rights work doesn’t benefit anyone.
In 1980, as a young doctor coming out of university, I joined the ICRC to work in a district hospital in Cambodia. I was motivated by a desire to discover the world and assist people in need. We were a group of Swiss expatriates trained on the job to achieve one of the greatest assistance actions since World War II; the logistician had architect training, the doctor in charge had two years of surgery experience in Switzerland, and the person responsible for emergency food relief had a literature degree. Together we invented our work using our motivation, experience and common sense.
After this term, I caught the humanitarian “bug” and ended up giving the ICRC more than 30 years of my life. During this period, humanitarian action became fully professionalized and internationalized. In 2013, during my last term in Bangkok, I worked with professionals from Azerbaijan, India, Ireland, France, the Philippines and, of course, Thailand.
Now, standards exist in all areas, impact measures are the rule, and performance indicators are essential in the planning process. This was necessary in a world that has become more connected and more demanding, but also more complex, unpredictable and dangerous. Today, humanitarian interventions are more exposed to the public eye, and both donors and recipients have the right to demand accountability. It is no longer enough to "do your best". We owe the people we are assisting an intervention that meets professional excellence criteria, and we owe our donors the assurance that their money is managed with utmost rigor. Now, standards exist in all areas, impact measures are the rule, and performance indicators are essential in the planning process.
But does this shift from an “amateur” to a more “professional” style mean that humanitarian and human rights organizations may become less effective than in the past? Does it mean that people in need may perhaps have received less assistance or protection? Overall, I do not think so. That said, there are new constraints and risks of which we must be aware and manage.
In 1980, we were amateurs working closely together. Today, there is a danger of fragmentation of operations between several areas of expertise: lawyers, doctors, engineers, and others, each in their field with their own frame of reference. But in the complex emergencies we face, the problems are global, and so must be the answers. Good coordination between specialists is essential. Training and career management must give professionals the feeling that they are part of a whole to which they all contribute. This is also the role of field managers, who have become much more important than they were 30 years ago. Knowing how to work together as a highly diversified team is a skill that international organizations must acquire and develop.
One of Oelberger’s concerns is that professionals are less altruistically-motivated and more concerned by managing their own career. The research that she mentions shows that intellectual stimulation, learning and professional developments are key to job satisfaction. She is right on this point. As an example, I remember a young delegate responsible for the protection of detainees in Kabul, who asked me to change his job, saying: "I love my job, but I do not learn anything new and I am not improving myself anymore."
But I believe that this attitude is also the consequence of a more competitive labour market, where we are all forced to pay more attention to our career path and consequently expect (rightly) our hierarchy to be concerned by the development of our competencies. Organizations must take this into account and managers must dedicate time to training their staff and to keeping an open dialogue with them on their future.
In the extreme situations in which ICRC intervenes, those affected need professionally delivered assistance. They also, however, need an international presence, a gesture, or a word that restores hope and dignity. The authorities with whom our employees deal with are not only sensitive to technical arguments, but also to the power of conviction. Our people do not only have to be competent professionals, but also strong personalities. In 1992, the head physician of a hospital in Azerbaijan reminded me of this when I introduced myself as an ICRC doctor, saying sharply: "I do not care about your organization and your title. Who are you, you?" This is one reason why ICRC places major importance on the evaluation of social and relational skills in the recruitment process.
Flickr/International Committee of the Red Cross (Some rights reserved)
An ICRC medical team operates on a wounded combatant in South Sudan.
Finally, humanitarian and human rights organizations often act in unstructured and unpredictable situations. Professional skills are not always enough. We must leave some room for creativity and personal initiative, which must start from the field. Although we need competent experts, we need to know how to keep adventurous personalities who think outside the box. These people may be difficult to manage in everyday life, but they will make a difference in extreme situations.
After all, it was Louis Haefliguer, who in August 1945, as ICRC delegate at Mauthausen concentration camps, disregarded instructions and convinced SS guards not to execute Himmler's order to blow up all installations, saving more than 40,000 deportees, It was Henry Dunant, a mystic dreamer who ended up bankrupt and had to leave his city of Geneva, but whose initiative of treating the wounded of both sides in the battle of Solferino in 1859 inspired the humanitarian laws of modern warfare.
The humanitarian world needs also people like this. And it is certainly worth the effort to recruit and retain some of them.
Overall, I am pleased with the professionalism and progressive internationalization of ICRC staff. I am convinced that it was beneficial for the humanitarian sector and for the people we are trying to help and protect. But this evolution is positive only if international organizations fully accept it by assuming its constraints and risks, and adapt employee management accordingly.
If human rights organizations want to motivate their professionals and reap the full benefit of their expertise, they should review the recruitment process, develop continuous training programs, make career management more transparent and above all, keep managers accountable in their "team building" role when managing a diverse group of people.
We cannot hire professionals while keeping an amateur management mentality. Humanitarian professionals may have a genuine desire to help, but most also want to advance in their careers. Why can’t they do both?How does professionalization impact international human rights organizations? Firm yet flexible: keeping human rights organisations relevant A time for change? The future of INGOs in international human rights Can rights organizations use low-burden self-reflection for evaluation? To truly internationalize human rights, funding must make sense Decentralizing can make global human rights groups stronger Internationalization is about more than just advocacy Transnational rights violations call for new forms of cooperation Human rights diversity goes beyond North-South relations Multiple boomerangs: new models of global human rights advocacy Rights: CC by NC 4.0
Seeing a mass of drunk and high naked white people celebrating their newfound liberty with police officers standing guard is a slap to the face.
I was born naked and brown.
My ancestors on my father’s side were also born naked and brown. They felt no shame for dressing for the hot temperatures of their tribal soil.
But I was not born in the tribal lands of my Central American ancestors. I was born into the whitest of white places: Portland, Oregon.
Over the years Portland has come to prize itself as one of the most liberal cities in America. You can smoke weed, marry a person of the same gender, have a beer at the movie theater, and pay for a cuddle all in the same day. For most people these liberties have come to define what it means to be ‘weird’ and liberal in Portland.
Once a year, in late June, you can even take off all of your clothes and ride your bicycle butt naked to give a big ‘fuck you’ to the world, or maybe just to declare a newfound security in your nudity.
The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) in Portland is not something that I’ve ever participated in, and although it could be conceivable that as some indigenous ancestral throwback I might want to join in, I sure as hell don’t.
Let me explain why.
Oregon has a history of passive racism. Over the course of Oregon’s short statehood there has been legislation which has prohibited people of African descent from entering the state, Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning land, and an indigenous population that has been erased from the green pastures of the Pacific Northwest.
Most Portland residents don't know that Oregon, and Portland specifically, also served as the western front for the Ku Klux Klan during its most powerful era, with over 14,000 members statewide circa 1922. The culmination of these factors has helped to make Oregon one of the whitest places in the world.
Given its historical limitations, the naked bike ride in Portland has been an overwhelmingly white activity by proxy, not intentionally, but no doubt as a consequence of historical and structural racism.
White people nowadays didn’t have a direct hand in that legislation or history but should consider taking a moment to recognize how and why Portland is so white. White people should also consider how and why the naked bike ride itself turned out to be such an overwhelmingly white activity.
In 2003 WNBR founder Conrad Schmidt picked up on the idea of using nudity to draw attention to an anti-fossil fuel cause to Vancouver BC, and the idea spread throughout the Pacific Northwest. In 2004 Portland activists picked up the naked bike ride protest model to join in the protest of dependence on blood-oil and the US conflict in Iraq. There is no doubt that the visual mass of naked bodies on the roadway was an effective and shocking method for promoting a political message in a normally clothing-conservative United States. Local and national media flocked to the controversy and the protest gained much praise as a radical action.
Unfortunately in Portland and across the US, the political message of the first American naked bike rides has been lost. Despite continued US involvement in conflict zoned, oil rich parts of the Middle East, the shock and social taboo associated with the nudity of the protest has been re-centered as the focus. Many now participate in the naked bike ride as a proclamation against body shaming and ridding naked bodies of a sexualized stigma, which was a common theme amongst earlier Western European nudist movements.
Ironically, in trying to maintain a degree of radicalism by not purchasing city permits or providing a preplanned route, Portland organizers now force a mass idling of motor vehicles which further exacerbates carbon pollution.
Portland’s naked bike ride has also in recent years been treated as more of a celebration than a protest action, leading it to become a throwback to its pan-European roots. Open drug and alcohol consumption are now a standard expectation within the ride, further expanding nudism as a leisurely pursuit rather than an intentional element of a radical, politically motivated protest.
Portland as of 2015 has had the largest number of participants of any city in the US. The City of Portland itself has not yet attempted to shut down the ride, perhaps because the annual event has become an attention grabbing part of local culture. In recent years it has even been informally facilitated by the Portland Police. Cops now stand guard to protect the bicyclists from angry drivers and pedestrians who find they are unable to cross the 10,000 strong mass of nude bodies, who can take over an hour to pass.
Having the cops involved has discredited the radicalism of the ride and prevented access to it from communities of color. Historically, we have plenty of reason to be distrusting of law enforcement. Even the normally conservative Oregonian newspaper has picked up coverage of the WNBR and published narratives written by participants that describe the range of emotions riders experience in openly exposing their nude bodies to the world for the first time.
Photographs of majority white participants are scattered across Portland’s various news sources and could easily be mistaken for photographs taken at Coachella or the Burning Man festival. This celebratory aspect of the ride has also in recent years brought with it trendy festival fads, including the appropriation of indigenous culture in the form of headdresses and quasi-Native American style body paint and garb.
I have personally witnessed this insensitivity and have consciously decided that this is where I draw the line. Wasn’t nudity always cited as an indicator of savagery by Western European colonizers? And wasn’t nudity often one of the primary justifications for both African enslavement and indigenous tribal genocide? Considering my own identity, I cannot help but be bothered by all this.
After a lifetime of experiencing police profiling, seeing a mass of drunk and high naked white people celebrating their newfound liberty with those same police officers standing guard is a slap to the face.
I recognize that participants in the ride may experience a degree of personal growth with regards to body image and their nude bodies’ relation to the world, but like the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the radical message of the ride has been lost to a mass of stark naked whiteness.
Perhaps it is not the kind of whiteness that covers the face with a white hood, but the kind of whiteness which doesn’t even realize that a white hood is covering the face at all.Sideboxes Related stories: How to decolonize your yoga practice 40 acres and a mule would be at least $6.4 trillion today: what the US really owes Black America I am a fat dancer, but I am not your inspiration porn What are white folks to do? From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown Rights: CC by NC 4.0
The fragility of the BBC’s independence from the state cannot continue to be ignored. Nor can its overall future be discussed in a silo.
James Murdoch. Image: Flicker/ IAB UK
4 January 1981: a day as fateful for the BBC as 30 July 1954 when the Television Act, breaking its broadcasting monopoly, received the royal assent; or 1 January 1927, when that monopoly was established by a royal charter transforming the British Broadcasting Company into a corporation.
On that day, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, entertained Rupert Murdoch to a secret tête-à-tête lunch at which a change-making deal was struck. In the opinion of Harold Evans, it led to ‘a coup that transformed the relationship between British politics and journalism. … She was trailing in the polls, caught in a recession she had inherited, eager for an assured cheerleader at a difficult time. Her guest had an agenda too.’ He wanted to add The Times and The Sunday Times to the News of the World and the Sun, which he already owned, and was concerned about competition regulations. She assured him that he need not be. The Times could be his.
Murdoch’s control of 40 per cent of UK national newspaper circulation followed this useful lunch. Well, why not? If all competition law does is count, then 40 per cent is not a monopoly. Sky Television was added in 1983 and again, why not? Television isn’t newspapers. Any assumption that a market place of ideas with a plurality of voices was a necessity for a democracy was revealed as a shibboleth. It was not, after all, the eighteenth century anymore and such outmoded notions had no place in that brave neo-liberal dawn. And so the BBC, which was a broadcasting monopoly in 1927 and opened to competition in 1954, faces today’s death-threat.A ‘public’ consultation
During the 2015 election that returned him to office, David Cameron had dismissed a BBC news story about him as ‘rubbish.’ ‘I’m going to close them down after the election,’ he promised. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, wondered about the threat: ‘Joke? Expression of frustration? All three? No one could be sure’. But on 11 May, 2015, it became clearer. Cameron gave the culture, media and sport portfolio to John Whittingdale, a man dubbed ‘a sound right-winger and a devoted Thatcherite’ (Anderson), once ‘Thatcher’s toy boy’ (Higgins) and now ‘the Tory minister for Murdoch’ (Holmes).
Fifty days after that, following talks with George Osborne, the BBC’s director general, Lord Hall, was informed that the cost of free licenses for the over-75s - a Blairite pre-election bribe of 2001 now running at some £630 million a year - would, in the future, be shouldered by the corporation itself. Even for an organisation with a £3.7 billion annual income, this could not be thought small change. Then, on 17 July Whittingdale unveiled a green paper – a consultation document: BBC Charter Review: A Public Consultation.
‘Being funded by a universal hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered and obliged to try and offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market […] The scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling.’
These words are not found in the green paper, they were spoken by James Murdoch in his notorious MacTaggart lecture in 2009. Whittingdale, in introducing his report, is more emollient, but the echoes are clear:
‘what should the BBC be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been before? What should its scale and scope be in the light of those aims and how far it affects others in television, radio and online?’
And who but the Murdochs and their fellow media oligarchs can he have in mind when he writes of the BBC ‘affecting others in’ (not merely consuming) broadcasting?
No broadcaster is an island, each is a piece of the media continent, as is every media platform – the newly electronic as well as the time-honoured press. It is now clear that the mutually beneficial relationship sealed that January day 34 years ago meant no good to the BBC – how much is only now finally becoming clear. It was damaging not only in the obvious sense that another significant percentage of its audience was about to be lost. More worryingly, Murdoch’s political hold over the politicians in turn implied that their hold over the BBC could be unduly influenced in his favour. But we choose not see that. Harold Evans told the Toronto Star he was ‘astonished by the lack of curiosity about a shocking story [e.g. the 1981 secret Thatcher/Murdoch concordat] that has been lying around on the pavement like a gold coin waiting for somebody to pick it up’. He should not be.Shields down
Until Whittingdale, cognitive dissonance had more or less allowed us to ignore the implications of the BBC’s charter and agreement. We pay little attention to the fact that the minister is mentioned 78 times in the 61 pages of the current agreement. Among other powers, he chooses and pays the BBC’s trustees.
We, though, believed that a force-field known as ‘conventions’ protects the BBC and its ‘independence’; and perhaps even after the summer of 2015 some still do. Yet ‘constitutional conventions’ are, according to A. V. Dicey, who invented the concept in the nineteenth century, ‘fictions … the most fanciful dreams of Alice in Wonderland’. The black-letter law enables threats like Cameron’s, but trusting the ‘conventions’ is all the BBC actually has to protect it. And, long before the very public assault of 2015, our faith in the reality of the ‘conventions’ could only be sustained by ignoring all evidence to the contrary. The secrecies of power-broking - such as private luncheons at Chequers - made this easy. Things come to light but usually decades later and with the non-effect expressed by Evans.
It is, for example, rumored that Thatcher consulted Murdoch on the appointment of Marmaduke (Duke) Hussey as chair of the BBC board of governors in 1986. His first major act was to sack the director general, Alasdair Milne. Milne was defenestrated after years of Thatcherite hostility which began, just after his appointment in 1982, with her backbenches frothing with indignation that the BBC news, in reporting the Falklands War, spoke of ‘British troops’ and not ‘our forces’. Official historian Jean Seaton describes Murdoch’s intervention as ‘extraordinary’ as, indeed, it was; but what is truly extraordinary it that all these incidents are greeted with such insouciance.
The drip of stories does not stop with Murdoch’s lunch and Milne’s fall. For example, there is DG Greg Dyke’s defenestration in January 2004 over Andrew Gilligan’s Today report on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. We knew about it quickly enough but, so far, it is hard to know exactly if, on this occasion, the BBC was pushed or jumped of its own accord. It could well have jumped. It has form in this regard. Astonishingly for an organisation that vaunts its ‘independence’, undercutting it can start with the BBC leadership itself ‘seeking guidance’ from Westminster.
Consider DG Sir Ian Trethowan’s servile shopping of a groundbreaking Panorama on MI5 in 1981 to the spooks and then, at their behest, in banning it. Or Lord Normanbrook, the chair of the governors, running to the Home Office in 1965 to check if the vivid anti-nuclear drama, The War Game, was OK to broadcast (It wasn’t.) Or DG Sir Ian Jacob putting the frighteners on any current affairs producer tackling the nuclear issue in 1955. Or the prevention of Lord Beveridge coming to the microphone in 1942 to explain his (best-selling) report on welfare, that crucial template of the post-war social settlement. Or, the de facto neutering of the somewhat radical talks department in 1934 on the eve of that decade’s charter renewal for fear that its record might cause difficulties. Or (starting as one means to go on) the founding DG, John Reith, not allowing the unions on air for the nine days of the 1926 general strike – ‘the strike having been declared illegal.’
To be fair, there are even lesser well-known contrary occasions where the BBC is recorded as having spoken truth to power. Most notable is chairman Charles Hill’s initial defiance of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling’s attempt to stifle the reporting of the troubles in Ulster in 1972. And, no doubt, day-to-day, unreported improper interferences are resisted in, shall we say, a Paxmanesque style. But, even though it prides itself on being a ‘trusted’ news source, it is hard when reviewing such of the record as can be known not to see a thread of pusillanimity running through it.
The BBC does not seem to have within its DNA much of a ‘publish and be damned’ instinct. To say that ‘it has become pathologically risk-averse’ is, in the light of history, to give it rather more credit than it is due. It has always tended to timorous caution but, certainly since the Hitler war created the circumstances in which it was eventually allowed to shine, it has been Teflon-coated. The current DG Lord Hall need not expect to be contradicted, except by the flicker of evidence, when he talks in public of the BBC news ‘ethos, and the hard discipline of BBC training and neutrality’.He who pays the piper
It is a mark of extreme radicalism, it would seem, to challenge this rhetoric. Yet these glimmers of impropriety smack of the relationship of politicians and the media in eighteenth century Hanoverian Britain – but, when it comes to the BBC, ‘smack’ is all we allow them to do. We no longer smell the stench that necessarily accompanies any financial bond between government and media.
Robert Walpole, thus far Britain’s longest-serving premier (1721-1742) was a byword for corruption, not least because of his financial relationship to the press. A free press was held in high esteem: ‘the Palladium of all the civil, political and religious rights of an Englishman’. But it was utterly subverted by Walpole and his cronies through the stamp duty, manipulation of the mails and ‘subsidies’. In the 1730s, he used £50,000 – £4.25million in today’s money – to bribe toady editors and hacks. That we may be in the slightest echoing such goings with, dare one say, the licence fee is beyond the pale.
Hanoverian corruption? Do me a turn (as my father-in-law used to say)! Doesn’t happen here anymore: despite the MPs’ expenses racket, Britain is still perceived as the fourteenth least corrupt nation on earth. And, of course, at stake here is not the corruption of personal enrichment but that of power and influence. The licence fee system might involve the passing of large sums of money from the state to an organ of opinion, but any resemblance to Walpole’s recycling of taxation into subsidies is deemed merely coincidental. Nevertheless, tax money, however, hypothecated or not, is as much the Achilles’ heel of the BBC’s independence as it was of any eighteenth century denizen of Grub Street.
And, suddenly, thanks to Whittingdale, in 2015 that truth becomes unavoidable. To the toxicity of Cameron-style attacks over news coverage is now added the faux-naïf complaint about popularity. Well, not a complaint we understand, merely a reasonable query: why use tax money to produce programming which private entities can provide? It is a question that the BBC is hard pressed to answer and before the Second World War, it did so, essentially, by not making much of a fist of low-brow programming.
‘A jam session?’ the controller of programmes, queried his staff in 1938, ‘we must introduce some sort of supervision to prevent this sort of thing.’ Hitler helped the BBC’s ‘Light Entertainment’ to have a brilliant war, only to fall back towards elitism with the peace. The head of drama in the late 1940s dismissed an innocuous radio soap as being ‘socially corrupting by its monstrous flattery of the ego of the “common man”’. ‘Auntie’ BBC was only laid to rest in the 1960s under the pressure of competition.
Ever since John Reith escaped the clutches of the postmaster general in 1928 by promising never to cause any trouble, any parliamentary non-news related complaints about programming – sex and violence, say – have been squatted away by the government of the day as not being its business. Moreover, has any MP ever risen in the House of Commons to complain that the corporation is planning yet another dramatisation of Austin when Thomas Love Peacock remains untouched? Whittingdale echoes this apparent non-interventionism, upon which rests the corporation’s political independence, when he says: ‘Even if I wanted to close down Strictly Come Dancing, which I don’t, it would be completely wrong of the government to try and decide which programmes the BBC should make and which it shouldn’t’.’
But it is disingenuous to pretend that without popularity the licence fee is not endangered. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all. Indeed, if the BBC cedes its hard won capacity for light entertainment and is forced to retreat into a Reithian elitist ghetto, as sure as night follows day, it would be ‘completely’ right for the politicians to abolish a tax on operating a receiver, which is what the license fee is, when the proceeds go only to one broadcaster who isn’t used by the majority of those paying the tax. And, whoops, there goes the BBC!
John Whittingdale says: ‘We also need to ask some hard questions in charter review if we are to ensure the future success of the BBC, and indeed UK broadcasting’, but the agenda of charter renewal does not come close to addressing them, not least because ‘UK broadcasting’ is involved and UK broadcasters include media conglomerates. The last time we asked hard questions of them, at the feet of Lord Leveson, there followed no answers. The best we do in looking beyond the BBC silo are Ofcom’s public service reviews but even they restrict the definition of broadcasting competition to the BBC, ITV, C4, C5 and SC4. This has the Orwellian result of making the BBC the monopolist. News International, remember, is no such thing – it is not, curiously, even a public service broadcaster.
The BBC’s mission, as the BBC Charter Review reminds us, is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. When we are assured in the consultation document that: ‘[t]he government is, therefore, committed both to the future of the BBC and to its underlying Reithian mission’ an eyebrow can surely be raised. The information function, at its heart the news service, is compromised by the public funding source being controlled by politicians – and they are themselves not truly independent of the BBC’s rivals. And it is those last who demand that the BBC cease and desist from entertaining. That leaves, in the broadest sense, education, but that function drips elitism and elitism is fatal to the universality of the licence fee.
That need not be, of course. If we were dealing with the marketplace of ideas rather than just the marketplace, the principle of a hypothecated tax – or some other public subvention – could by defended. As it is, Tony Hall is right to protest: ‘I don’t think we are just there to be a market failure BBC’, although that role could be an honourable one. In 1927, one of John Reith’s most brilliant early moves was to save the Henry Wood Promenade concerts from collapse because of the withdrawal of commercial sponsorship. In the same spirit, in March 2014, Tony Hall announced close ‘partnerships’ with the National Theatre, the Tate Gallery, the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, the Royal Academy and Glyndebourne. To be such a hub could well justify the use of public funds. But not in today’s cold neo-liberal light. As it is, the implicit invitation to play the market failure role is a poisoned chalice.
Despite five pages in the consultation document on ‘the BBC’s values’ and ‘the BBC’s public purposes’, there is, in truth, little here beyond lip-service about the quality and value of culture. No proposed examination of the BBC’s need to compete to protect its claim in the public purse. No inquiry into the market’s failures (how could there be?). The only thing that truly matters here are questions that ‘persist around the distinctiveness of the programmes the BBC delivers, and whether it uses its broad purposes to act in too commercial a way, chasing ratings rather than delivering distinctive, quality programming that other providers would not.’ James Murdoch would not disagree.
To talk only of the BBC’s governance, finance and management failings in a converged digitised multiplatform, internationalised, conglomerate-dominated world is to be rearranging the deckchairs. No broadcaster is an island, so how can any policy remotely pertinent to long-term realities emerge from such limited exercises as this? Above all, how can we square the market, with so limited a number of ‘speakers’, with the market place of ideas where creating a cacophony of voices is the objective?
Unless we can answer that, the bell tolls, and not just for the BBC.
This is an edited extract of a chapter from the forthcoming book:
The BBC Today: Future Uncertain. Ed. John Mair, Professor Richard Tait and Professor Richard Lance Keeble. Abramis Bury St Edmunds: 5 September 2015
(Copies available from mid august from Richard@arimapublishing.co.uk and on Amazon)Sideboxes Related stories: Time to fight for the BBC BBC Charter renewal: invisible actors and critical friends The BBC and the Tories: is it war? Reimagining, not diluting the BBC in the next decade The Whittingdale Eight: war or wisdom for the BBC? Rights: CC by NC 4.0
The last thing the NHS needs is another supermarket-man selling 'market' solutions.
Former Marks & Spencer Sir Stuart Rose, hired by Cameron to advise the NHS, has reported back.
The health service could learn from the management practices of the big high-street chains, he told us.
NHS boss Simon Stevens responded grouchily that “the complexity of managing the NHS was greater than that of selling underwear”.
More ‘market’ ideology, more ‘free market’, is the last thing the NHS needs.
Healthcare cannot be marketed and run like M&S.
Nobody disagrees that the NHS has got to be cost-effective. But purchasing care services from private providers with shareholders demanding profits can only lead to increased costs or reduced quality of care – or both.
If there is one lesson we can take from the last ten years it is that the NHS does not need another dose of advice from commercial companies, especially when it tells us our health service needs to be run like a “supermarket”.
Healthcare is not like buying underwear.
You don’t know when or whether you'll need healthcare – but if you do, the care can be prohibitively costly. Only a small minority of people can afford to pay major medical costs out of their own pocket.
And healthcare is that it is complicated, and you cannot rely on experience or comparison shopping. That is why doctors follow an ethical code, and why we expect more from them than from bakers or M&S.
But private companies like Virgin and Care UK aren’t in business to promote your health – they are there to make a profit. There’s far more money in safe, elective procedures, like hip, knee, heart or cataract surgery than in unpredictable emergency treatment or labour intensive care for the chronically ill (unless you cut corners on the numbers and skill of your staff, of course).
So healthcare cannot be sold like a commodity in supermarket. It must be largely paid for by some kind of central taxation like the NHS, or an insurance scheme like in the US. In either situation, someone other than the patient ends up making decisions about what is affordable. Choice and competition is nonsense when it comes to healthcare.
For the last two decades, the leaders of all major political parties have been wedded to the idea that healthcare should be run as a ‘market’. Do they really believe that chosen private healthcare firms will treat all patients fairly, and not just select those based on the criteria of how much profit will be made? The ‘commissioning’ system makes it easy for private providers to cherry-pick tasks to maximise profit and minimise costs. From the perspective of patients and taxpayers this bias is highly undesirable – a recipe for overcharging, over-treatment and corner-cutting on safety.
There are no evidence-based examples of successful healthcare systems relying on the principles of the free market.
People like Sir Stuart Rose who say that the market is the answer to achieving better outcomes for health are flying in the face of both theory and overwhelming evidence.
The NHS faces huge challenges. A continuous evolution is needed, with greater responsiveness and accountability.
But a high-quality and efficient NHS will never be achieved using the market forces of creative destruction.
It is time to reject the market ideology that has plagued the NHS for more than 30 years and wasted billions of pounds, and move forward with a depoliticised NHS, a publicly funded, provided, comprehensive and accountable healthcare system based on co-operation, collaboration and the social contract between doctors and patients.Rights: CC by NC 4.0
Phil England asks Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, about the UK's constitutional crisis and the relevance of Iceland's constitutional convention.
In what sense is the UK experiencing a constitutional crisis? What is the most compelling argument for the UK to embark on a process for creating a new constitution?
There are three sets of arguments, each compelling in different ways. First, the negative one: the existing system is effectively broken, demoralising and generates distrust and bad government over the long term. Second, the positive: that this is the way for the British and in particular the English to articulate who we are in the modern world – to ‘constitute’ ourselves after imperialism with a democratic constitution, rooted in a convention process, that sets out our aspirations as a country, refreshing a long constitutional culture. Tackling both the breakdown and the need for renewal will have a very positive impact in addressing the chronic problems of democratic government in the UK. Yes, this is part of a general crisis of democratic government everywhere, due to lots of factors associated with the rise of corporate power and globalisation hollowing out a void in representative democracy, but the UK is an acute example. Paradoxically, because we do not have a codified constitution the way could be open to one that embraces all the gains made possible by the digital revolution.
So there’s a negative argument that we have an incoherent and now damaging constitution and a positive argument that creating a new one can address the demoralisation, xenophobia, chauvinism and fear which lace through this country’s sense of itself.
The third argument for embarking on a new constitution is that the breakdown of the old order and lack of belief in the public realm have led the security state to modernise and strengthen itself undemocratically, in terms of surveillance and control, using the ‘war on terror’ as a cover. This is a dangerous extension of the constitutional issues facing the UK and needs a response by society as a whole.
What would you point to as evidence for this broken constitutional process and distrust that you refer to?
First, a health warning. It is like looking at a railway system whose signals break down, whose timetable few believe, whose engines belch smoke. We need a new railway! But to describe the examples, as you ask, means getting technical as we peer inside the engines. It is very important to do this, while never forgetting that it is the system as a whole that matters.
We had a strong and coherent constitution anchored in the absolute sovereignty of the crown in Parliament. That wasn’t a mere legal formula of A.V. Dicey and others in the 19th century, they worked hard to understand and describe realities. Britain’s was an imperial parliament that could draw borders across the world. Also the centre, ‘the crown in parliament’, consisted of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, each with real powers. Furthermore, it was integrated with a coherent, imperial set of institutions: the army, the church, the permanent civil service, at the apex of which was the crown. Its political economy was the unique gentlemanly capitalism of the City, and by gentlemanly I don’t mean that it was gentle but that it had strong moral rules to prevent corruption. A man’s word was his bond. And this proved extremely profitable not least with a global insurance market. This unified constitutional order was a kind of parliamentary absolutism and its defenders were very clear that it wasn’t a democracy in the American sense. But they prided themselves in the way they ensured the consent of the people to the system as a whole. You hear many educated people and smart journalists these days saying “we don’t have a constitution”. The Victorians would have been appalled at such ignorance, the constitution was the apple of their eye. From Coleridge to Maitland they wrote at length seeking to explain its unique achievements.
Today it is a shattered thing. The most recent example: The three main Westminster political leaders in the run-up to the Scottish referendum signed a “Vow” (written in fact by a previous prime minister Gordon Brown) saying that the Scottish Parliament “is permanent”. This means that the Scottish parliament – which came into existence through a referendum – exists based on the will of the Scottish people and cannot be abolished by Westminster without the assent of the Scottish people. Now if you are legalistic you can argue that on paper Westminster has not removed its sovereign or unilateral capacity to abolish Holyrood. But Dicey and Co were scholars of reality. In fact Westminster is no longer sovereign over the existence of the Scottish parliament. A fundamental principle of Victorian rule is now a dead parrot.
So the singular system of sovereignty is broken. Historically, it was broken when we joined the European Union and shared sovereignty with Europe. The coming referendum on membership of the EU will be an interesting moment. It is possible that England – they will try to make it the UK but in fact it will be England – might withdraw from the EU. If so, the English will regain sovereignty in a fashion. But it is very unlikely to happen. And if it does not happen membership of a system with shared sovereignty will become a permanent feature terminating the old order. Furthermore the UK with an un-codified constitution will exist within an actually codifying constitutional arrangement – the EU. This must make the British constitution ever more vulnerable; and people’s fear that they don’t know who rules them, or how, entirely justified.
Another apparently technical but actually principled question relates to the judges. The Victorian traditional constitution held that parliament is sovereign and that the courts couldn’t even ‘read’ Hansard, which is the name for the proceedings of parliament, to interpret legislation - as this would mean their judging parliament. This convention has been long overturned by the decisions of the higher courts. But take a look at the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005. This created what is now called our Supreme Court (removing the senior judges from the House of Lords). Section One of the Act refers to “the existing constitutional principle of the rule of law”. Parliament passed this. But how does this constitutional principle sit with the constitutional principle of the supremacy of parliament? Does it now follow that that if parliament passed a statute law which in the view of the Supreme Court undermined the principle of the rule of law, it should be declared unlawful?
For example, the Blair government tried to pass a piece of legislation saying that nobody seeking asylum would have the right to appeal against a decision on the grounds that the decision had been improperly carried out: it would have explicitly deprived them of the right of judicial review. The Commons to its shame passed it but House of Lords did not. However, Lord Woolf [Lord Chief Justice 2000-2005] told the Labour government not to pass that legislation, which would have possibly deprived people of their freedom without proper recourse to law. Quite possibly it would have breached the principle of the rule of law. Or take the legislation that is currently in place about what are called secret trials - there’s a lot of resistance to the implementation of this in the actual courts. If somebody was deprived of their liberty through a process whereby they’ve not actually been able to hear the evidence against them, which might now be possible, it is within the realm of possibility that the legislation which enabled this to happen would be challenged and could be struck down by the Supreme Court as having breached the now constitutional principle of the rule of law.
Lord Bingham, who was Lord Chief Justice 1996-2000, gave a lecture about the implications in 2006 and John Jackson has set out the arguments in openDemocracy. Simply put, what happens to the constitutional principle of the sovereignty of parliament if parliament has said that it is bound by the constitutional principle of the rule of law? If parliament says it acts under the rule of law this implies there is a set of rules – the rule of law – that is higher than the sovereignty of parliament as parliament acts within its framework.
Today, therefore, the UK’s constitution – the Westminster system if you like - is constitutionally incoherent. It is a profound mess. Not just in terms of territory with Scotland or sharing sovereignty with the EU but at the heart of its own sovereignty.
All this might seem to be abstract and unimportant in terms of popular politics. But I suspect the confusion over the true nature of our government ‘trickles down’. It gives an edge to the hysteria in the media as to what kind of country we are, or for example, to the BBC not being sure what it is for. We don’t know what the rules are because nobody knows what the rules are, because the basic rules no longer make sense.
The immediate source of all this was the far-reaching set of reforms the Labour government passed between 1997 and 2001, a set of very profound constitutional changes: A Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Mayor of London (all created by referendums); the independence of the Bank of England; the Freedom of Information Act; abolishing hereditary peers; the Human Rights Act; while at the same time refusing to offer the country a new settlement which made sense of these changes. The result was a disintegration of the old order which left the Executive with even more unaccountable power than before.
It’s a paradox. Wherever the reforms really decentralised power, whether to nations, judges or media using FoI requests, they worked. But from the point of view of old Westminster the success of partial reforms threatened the centre even more. A constitutional disintegration is taking place which is being compensated for by a modernisation of the deep state, the security services and surveillance which are, in my opinion, now the most immediate threat to our democracy, such as it is.
So you’re locating the crisis as being at the heart of the institutions of government themselves because of the lack of clarity around the relationships between them and who has the power. How do you think the newly elected Conservative government intends to address these issues?
This is a question I’m wrestling with and I’m not quite sure what the answer is yet. One aspect of the election – which you may regard as a very sad aspect – is that ‘the system’ of the English state worked. The system won. A profoundly undemocratic electoral process generates decisive results from very indecisive voting. In 2005 it gave us a ‘majority’ Labour government on 35% of the popular vote. Now it has again delivered the State into the hands of a single party with a so-called mandate. That party therefore believes it has a right to do what it wants. There is still an acceptance by the British people that this is how we do things; it is, alas, seen as legitimate. So you could sit back and say, ‘Well, the system works. There is no constitutional crisis.’ And that is what we’re witnessing.
The Conservatives may feel there are constitutional problems, such as the need for better representation of England, but they see these as being solved by the majority bestowed on them by the electoral system. However to get where they are they’ve made various promises. One of these is the European referendum.
They want to stay in the EU. So do I. I think what our government ought to say is ‘this means we are going to become a different kind of country’. But the Tories will argue that they have now ‘renegotiated’ terms and this means it is in the “interests of Britain” to stay in Europe and, furthermore, that our sovereignty will not be fundamentally challenged. In my view they will seek to stay in Europe dishonestly by claiming that our country is unchanged by such membership.
And here the UKIP arguments of Douglas Carswell, while I don’t agree with his conclusion, are honest. I mean I think we should share sovereignty with the European Union and he’s against that. But he sees the issues truthfully. The government will pretend that significant sovereignty is not being shared and that we don’t need to worry about it. Theirs is an argument made in bad faith. It will probably win and if it does Britain will continue to suffer from a toxic constitutional culture.
Second, the Tories are in a real difficulty with replacing the Human Rights Act, if it means in any way withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. For a start they are going to come up against the way the Scottish parliament and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland have the Human Rights Act as an integral part of their legislation. The Northern Ireland question is as important as Scotland here. It’s another obscure yet systemic constitutional conundrum.
And they’ve just put that off in the sense that it didn’t appear in the Queen’s speech…
They’ve put it off challenging the Human Rights Act for the moment but they’re still committed.
One solution is for them to propose a federal constitution for the UK. This would allow a proper offer to Scotland as well as England. Being Tories they would seek to codify the existing constitution from above. From their point of view this would be intelligent and could be quite popular. It would also rub in the lost opportunity for the left, one which Ed Miliband, following Gordon Brown, threw away.
The Conservatives are perfectly capable of taking a wholescale initiative of this kind. But it runs a very big risk of having to let go. It is also difficult to see how you could constitutionalise the House of Lords. But they will not want to replace the House of Lords because it’s a wonderful vehicle for their own vested interests and network of legal corruption. Why should a group of people that have the British state in their hands possibly want to let go of it? Unless they are democrats. So in all likelihood they will reproduce the Blair-Brown approach of wanting to renovate the constitution while retaining the monopoly of power they are exercising in Westminster.
So, to try to answer your question, although the Tories have inherited the acute constitutional issues I have described it is likely they too will see them as tactical questions which they’ve got to get around or get past. They’ve got to win this referendum, fix those Human Rights, manage northern devolution, roll out English wallpaper in the Commons, but avoid a new constitutional settlement.
However, there’s Scotland. If you look at what’s happened in constitutional terms, it’s absolutely amazing. The British state has kept itself going through first-past-the-post, which resolved the divisions that exist within the country into extremely ‘strong’ governments. In a way the system lived by first-past-the-post. Now, in Scotland, it has died through first-past-the-post. Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party would have a significant number of MPs from Scotland if there was a proportional electoral system and there would even be Lib Dem MPs. But in Scotland first-past-the-post has wiped them out. Because this has happened so suddenly, thanks to the winner-takes-all character of first-past-the-post, neither the London media nor the Westminster politicians have absorbed what this means. They still think of the SNP as outriders who may have come today but will go tomorrow. They are, however, the governing party in Scotland and have been for eight years, occupying the space of European style social democracy vacated by Labour. The result is that Labour will never recover north of the border. Perhaps in the long term – 15-20 years – the Conservatives may do so but only if there is a Scottish Conservative Party not a unionist Conservative Party. All of which means there is no longer any party of the Union represented across the Union. All constitutions are determined by how they are lived, all the more so if they are uncodified. The destruction of the Westminster representation of the three main union parties across the whole of the second country of the Union poses a hugely difficult constitutional challenge because there is a dynamic now in play. First-past-the-post functions as a brutal unifying force as it vaporizes smaller parties. It was the old system’s form of gravity. In 2015 its impact was reversed and it is dividing Britain, it has become a centripedal not a centrifugal force.
Should the Labour Party be in favour of proportional representation in order to shore up their influence in Scotland?
Labour should be in favour of PR because it’s a democratic electoral system and not for instrumental reasons. UKIP is in favour of it because it’s wiped out without it; it should have 80 seats with its 14% of the vote. In Scotland, the SNP got nearly 1.5 million votes and 56 MPs in May’s general election, Labour got over 700,000 votes in Scotland and just one MP. In terms of democracy the UK system is obscene. However, as I have said, it is used to force a coherence that hitherto has prevented not intensified disintegration. It still does in England but it is breaking apart the Union.
But it breeds dissatisfaction.
It may indeed breed dissatisfaction. Lord Hailsham, who was Lord Chancellor under Heath and again under Thatcher, complained about an “elected dictatorship” in 1974 when the Tories lost. But he did not persist in his criticism when they won. So, yes, it breeds dissatisfaction but ‘dissatisfaction’ is just a form of whinging which can be easily ‘managed’. What has happened with Scotland is quite different. What previously kept things together in a forceful and unfair fashion, now is rending them apart - also in a forceful and unfair fashion. Labour will have to face up to the fact that it is now an English party.
So what do you think are the prospects for a citizen-led convention process in the UK and to what extent would the parties that are now in opposition be in support of such a process?
I think the prospects – which looked relatively promising before the election with the possibility of another hung parliament – are now unpromising. You have to face up to the fact that we’re probably looking at another ten years of Tory rule. And the Tories are unlikely to open up the political system along these lines. It isn’t in their nature or character it would seem.
So the question then is ‘What are the prospects of the opposition parties calling for it?’ The SNP said that if it won the independence referendum it would have a popular-based constitutional convention in Scotland. It’s very unlikely now that it’s the third largest party in the Westminster parliament that it will seek to support a convention process for Britain.
The Liberal Democrats are, I think, dead in the water and unlikely to survive as a party. They could come out for a constitutional process of this kind. They ought to do so. It could give them a different, distinctive approach that might resuscitate them were anyone to believe them. [Note: since the interview on which this article is based took place, the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Purvis of Tweed, has introduced a Constitutional Convention Bill in the House of Lords.] So what influence it would have is a hard to judge.
Will a new Labour leader and the Labour Party seek to embrace a process of this kind? I think it’s probably inconceivable under the leadership of Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper who are creatures of the Blair-Brown years. It’s conceivable that a new leader from the new generation seeking a way forward could embrace these arguments. [Note: the interview on which this article is based took place before Jeremy Corbyn MP joined the Labour Party leadership contest]. But it’s quite profoundly against the Labour experience. Labour is a party of traditional government and it wants to get back in to govern in a traditional way. A call for a constitutional convention along the lines of some kind of Icelandic model but with the participation of some politicians would demand the Labour Party becoming a genuinely pluralist party, i.e. one that is not seeking to govern alone anymore. It would mean it becoming a party not seeking sole power, whose calling is no longer to capture the state in a single leap as it has done in ‘64, ‘97 and ‘45. Is this in Labour’s culture? It’s not what its about. So it’s quite hard to see how Labour could embrace such a cause.
The point is that calling for a democratic constitutional convention is about governing differently. Gordon Brown was enamored of the idea of a written constitution but he conceived of it as his personal policy. Probably, he wanted to write it himself! He wasn’t able to let go and trust in a process generated from outside parliament. He made Michael Wills a Minister of Justice and allowed him to argue the case but never supported it himself.
It would mean abandoning the patronising , corporate, unified Labourist approach. There are a very few individuals like Graham Allen MP who have understood this. It’s a very profound change in the whole culture of government and that’s why I think it can’t be done by a leader who has been formed in government. The party would have to have a different relationship to the public.
Next, the Greens. The Greens are the one growing party who have adopted this kind of constitutional approach and could implement it in a serious and effective fashion. They could become the party for constitutional democracy.
Finally, UKIP. A popular convention, a peoples’ process, must include 14% of the voters. Their one MP, Douglas Carswell, has written The End of Politics, probably the most sustained argument for popular-based democracy that any politician currently in parliament has produced. He really is for letting go. The reason why he was regarded as a ‘maverick’ in the Conservative Party was that he believed in what he said when he said he was a democrat! He is also a modern democrat in terms of using the internet and making a reality of decentralisation and participation.
Yet it’s difficult to see – even though Carswell might be an interesting figure – that the people who fund UKIP like Richard Desmond owner of the Daily Express who gave them £1.3 million pounds before the last election would be interested in the party supporting a citizen-led constitutional convention process.
Sure, the commercial interests that seek to buy parties like UKIP are not looking for a relatively wise, self-confident democracy that would be able to govern the market in a way that is fair. But supporters of UKIP, with their sense of distrusting the political class, their sense that rules are being changed without them having any say, cannot be excluded from a democratic convention. It may be that it doesn’t produce the kind of outcomes you would like but then you have to say, ‘fine, that is democracy.’ It is true that a deliberative convention needs to protect itself from poisonous campaigns by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. But we should embrace with enthusiasm the fact that millions of working class people now think the electoral system stinks.
Let me add this about UKIP and its five million voters. It may not survive the referendum, which is likely to be a ‘Yes’. But as in Scotland the losing side can be energized creatively if the winning side is fundamentally defensive and even dishonest. It is possible that UKIP could emerge by 2020 as the main working class party of England led by a woman who has read Carswell’s books, i.e. not Nigel Farage, and is modern and forward-looking and not showing an ankle to racism and homophobia. A party, in other words, seen by many as being to the left of the Labour Party and committed to a lot more democracy. I’d like this party, if such a one emerges, to be the Greens but whether or not it is depends a great deal on what happens in Europe itself in the wake of the Greek crisis.
So the Greens and UKIP. What about other civil society actors who might play an important role in pushing for a new constitution written by the people for the people?
Labour should be. Or there could be an alliance of forces, mayors etc. I think it will be a very popular idea. The heart of the argument is that the restructuring of the way Britain is ruled – whether it is inside or outside of Europe – is that it needs a new constitutional settlement. We need it so people can believe in what the country is about. And we need it because the existing structure is broken. We need it to defend our liberty from arbitrary power. That’s what we should be pushing for and arguing for.
A convention because you cannot leave it to parliament to rewrite a system in which it has such an enormous vested interest. Of course, Parliament as a legislature may well be strengthened in any democratic constitution, as the existing one is crippled by the Executive. But both symbolically and because it is the Executive itself that will be threatened by being held to account, the Commons cannot be the body that creates the new order. We need the House of Commons and the House of Lords to legislate into existence a democratic convention empowered to propose a new constitution articulated in a referendum (which may have a number of questions). They need to legislate in advance that the outcome of the referendum will become our new constitutional framework. This then will be founded on popular sovereignty rather than the sovereignty of parliament, that is rooted in the epoch of absolutism. Stuart White has set out the issues of a convention with admirable clarity.
Is that the lesson that we can take away from what happened in Iceland where the parliament set in motion a process whereby it was the citizens who drafted a new constitution for their country?
One of the things that Iceland shows is that well-run deliberative processes can create constitutional assemblies representative of the people that come through with the sets of rules and principles of government. Regular people have the wisdom to do this just as juries have the wisdom to come to views in trials. It has to be process driven. It is not ‘a mob’. People have the capacity to take these decisions.
Iceland also shows that you need to engage with the politicians so that this process is seen as a solution for them and not simply against them. Also, politicians need to grant a constitutional convention the power to call a binding referendum. Otherwise they will sabotage it.
That’s a difficult one if, as you suggest, we end up with an extended period of Tory rule. Is there a role for civil society here? Is there any way people and popular pressure can help move this up the agenda?
Enormous opportunities are going to open up because of the incoherence of Tory policy. But it means making a ‘knight’s move’ not just saying ‘I’m opposed to austerity’ – in the way, for example, the Peoples’ Assembly have done with no fresh thinking about democracy. People are still thinking along the old tramlines, that’s the problem. So if there was a movement against austerity and a movement against the £12 billion of welfare cuts, linked to a view on the EU referendum and the defence of human rights and modern liberty, all articulated in a call for a citizens constitutional settlement, then you could have a very powerful civil society movement which could sweep Labour and the Lib Dems along with it. But you’d need imaginative political organisation to do that.
That’s an interesting prospect.
The heart of the argument is this. You can no more get liberty or democratic outcomes, from the British state than you can get milk from a vulture (as Neal Ascherson once said). So those people who are engaging in different civil society movements and NGOs whether its on taxation, poverty, stopping austerity, saving the NHS, electoral reform, against surveillance, or even the reform of Europe, should understand that part of the problem they’re up against is the nature of the British state. Labour has always said that the solution for progressives is to capture the British state. This is the Fabian answer: capture the state and deploy its powers to progressive advantage. The Lib Dems too. But long experience shows that here in the UK the State captures you. What works for neo-liberalism does not work for those who want to tame corporate power. We have to have a democratic, constitutional state for there to be any hope of either modern liberty of a democratic economic outcome. It is not a guarantee, of course. It is simply a necessary pre-condition. At the same time it is the only way to address the disintegration of self-belief in our society.
You could argue then that Tory rule could offer an extended opportunity to explore such an alliance because of what is likely to be ongoing constitutional incoherence. Not so much a “democratic moment” as a five-year opportunity to get our act together…
That seems like a nice way of wrapping it up.
(Note: This interview is based on an original conversation between Phil England and Anthony Barnett but has been revised for publication.)
See The Independent for Phil England's accompanying overview of the current situation in Iceland.
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Russia’s oil industry lacks the infrastructure to avoid spills and leaks; and the environmental consequences are horrific.
Russian oil giant Rosneft has dumped on us northerners once again. It’s unlikely that anyone apart from the locals would have heard about the pipeline which burst on the outskirts of Nefteyugansk if not for photos of the aftermath on social media.
The pictures were taken by Andrei Seleznyov, a light aircraft pilot; and the local media, swiftly followed by national TV and press, picked them up after they appeared online on 27 June.Burst pipes
The burst had in fact taken place several days before on 23 June. The pipeline, lying along the bed of a channel at a depth of around three metres, burst at a point about a kilometre outside town, covering a four hectare area of water with a one-millimetre-thick iridescent film.
Nefteyugansk oil spill. Picture taken by Andrei Seleznyov.
This, at least, was the estimate of the damage made by inspectors from Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, who visited the site on 2 July, accompanied by the deputy CEO of the Rosneft subsidiary responsible for the pipeline, as well as two independent observers.
According to the Environmental Ministry, the real extent of the spill was in fact impossible to assess. High water levels led to the further dispersal of oil, some of which ended up on the channel’s banks and in the gardens of neighbouring houses. Environmental officers are confident that floating booms will prevent the oil flowing into the nearby massive river Ob, but the real size of the slicks, both in rivers and on dry land, will become clear only after the lifting of gale warnings in the area.
The real extent of the spill was in fact impossible to assess
For the moment, no one will even hazard a guess at the overall scale of the disaster – apart, that is, from Rosneft’s vice-president Michael Leontyev, who combines his day job with a Kremlin spin doctor role.
From Leontyev’s office in Moscow, the spill appears localised, even minimal: ‘the leak was very small, but later, heavy rain carried some of the oil into a reservoir.’ This claim conflicts with a statement from the Emergencies Ministry, reported on regional TV, according to which it flowed out of the reservoir again, but the volume of the spill was still unknown.
Leontyev’s response to this was that ‘it was no longer oil’ but some undefined ‘film’ that would not be easy to remove, but could be cleared within a week.The clean-up is postponed
Leontyev and his company didn’t, however, finish the job in a week. On 3 July, the Emergency Ministry’s regional team, which was also involved in the clean-up, told TASS news agency that the operation had been postponed until 7 July because of the bad weather – the technology used to clear oil spills requires high air temperatures.
A week later, a new date of 20 July was announced. The emergency team told TASS that ‘much of the work has been done’, and indeed, by that point, 118 cubic metres of oil had been removed. Fifteen floating booms, with an overall length in excess of four kilometres, had been installed to prevent further dispersal of the oil. But, probably due to the continuing high water levels, the process took longer than expected, and on 22 July there was still no further news from either the Emergencies Ministries or Rosneft.
On 21 July, the news agencies announced that two senior Rosneft managers had been sacked. There was no reference to whether this was connected to the oil spill.
Nefteyugansk's river port. Ales Antonovich / WikiMedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
The residents of Nefteyugansk, and indeed the whole region of Khanty-Mansiisk, have been more down-to-earth in their assessment. Unsurprising: they’re closer to the disaster than the political commentators.
In the words of one blogger: ‘now they’re not just flooding us, but flooding us with oil. There’ll be no more bathing, no more fish; nothing will grow in our gardens.’ The public mood is generally one of fury, with the occasional burst of irony: ‘Putin the Great has kept his promise: Russians are swimming in oil. Even the Emirates can’t match it.’
‘There’ll be no more bathing, no more fish; nothing will grow in our gardens.’
Stanislav Meshcheryakov, deputy head of the Department of Industrial Ecology at Moscow’s Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, thinks that it will take Rosneft several years to clean up the contaminated area (if it were actually to try).
‘I don’t know how much oil ended up in the river, and how much on its banks,’ Mescheryakov told Nakanune.ru. ‘But it will affect the entire food chain, from microorganisms through small crustaceans eaten by fish. And people will also catch the oil-contaminated fish’.
Meshcheryakov believes that the floating film of oil will deprive fish of oxygen and that they will lose their food supply: ‘we can clean the banks using synthetic microorganisms. But in one place there will be 5% oil per m², and in another, 50%. The microorganisms will deal with the 5% areas in one season, but larger concentrations will require two or three, which will be very costly’.A region covered in oil
Leontyev is right in saying that nothing unusual has happened in Nefteyugansk. For Rosneft, it is a perfectly normal situation.
It is not just Russian sources that put the company at the top of the accident league. Greenpeace and global statistics confirm it – Rosneft is responsible for 10,000 oil spills a year. An inspection conducted by Rosprirodnadzor three years ago concluded that it accounted for 75% of leaks in the Khanty-Mansiisk region of western Siberia, where Nefteyugansk is situated.
After a visit to the area in 2012, Environmental Minister Yuri Trutnev wrote that ‘the earth is practically covered in oil. It was not a question of finding contaminated areas – we had a problem finding any unpolluted ones. There are oil rivers, oil lakes, oil ponds – all the carelessly spilt detritus from accidents’.
‘It was not a question of finding contaminated areas – we had a problem finding any uncontaminated ones’
In 2013, Rosneft consolidated its position as king of the spills: the regional environmental watchdog reported that its subsidiaries were responsible for 2,188 accidents (95% of all pipeline bursts in the region). There are as yet no statistics available online for last year and this, but if you search online for ‘Rosneft, accidents’, you will find numerous results.
Rosneft is also active in other regions. Sakhalin Environmental Watch, a non-governmental organisation, was immediately able to bring me up to date on spills at oil wells owned by a Rosneft subsidiary on this far eastern edge of Russia.
On 7 May this year, an internal pipeline burst at the Mongi oilfield in the Nogliki district. The oil leaked into the Nelbutu River, which flows into the central part of Nyisky Bay on the Sea of Okhotsk. The spill is a mere 200-300 metres away from the Dagi Springs, a popular tourist destination and regional natural park. Local people are saying that the oil has seriously polluted not only the river but also a part of the bay; and both Rosprirodnadzor and the Emergencies Ministry have been informed.
The previous day, another spill had been discovered, at the Ekhabi Vostochoye oilfield belonging to the same Rosneft subsidiary in the Okhinsky district of the island of Sakhalin. The oil had been leaking since March, and it is still unclear whether its source has been located.
Several thousand square metres of oil-polluted soil have also been found on both banks of a creek that flows into Ekhabi Bay – also on Sakhalin, which has only a narrow outlet into the Sea of Okhotsk. The oil is continuing to flow into the creek, and from there, into the bay. Here, any accurate assessment of the extent of the pollution is hindered by the fact that the oil is spreading out under a thick layer of snow.
Sakhalin Environmental Watch suspects that the oilmen have not informed any government agencies of this spill, and so they have themselves reported it to the public prosecutor’s office, the Emergencies Ministry and Rosprirodnadzor. In 2010 and 2012, there were a number of similar leaks and spills in the district. And one notable incident took place last year, when the Ura.ru news website reported that ‘in Nizhevartovsk, oil might start coming out of your tap; there has been a spill next to the water intake from the reservoir.’Historic legacy – or excuse
‘Oil might start coming out of your tap; there has been a spill next to the water intake from the reservoir’
Meanwhile, Mikhail Leontyev explains his company’s trail of environmental destruction with suitable spin:
‘We had these wonderful oil companies such as Yukos and TNK-BP, with businesslike owners whose aim was to make as much money as possible, so they paid little attention to infrastructure. This is our historic legacy. This is why we have all these unfortunate oil leaks and spills, but we are fighting back. It’s no big tragedy’.
The truth of this statement can be gauged by the following: Environmental Ministry statistics for 2012 show that the company which spent the most on environmental compliance was TNK-BP (26.1 billion roubles, or £292.7m), while the company that spent the least (8.6 billion roubles less, to be exact) was Rosneft.
It was the downfall of Yukos that gave Rosneft its opportunity a decade or so ago. In 2003, Yukos’s owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on a charge of fraud, and in 2005, he was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. When the company’s assets were seized by the government and auctioned off, Rosneft, a small state-owned company at the time, was able to acquire most of them at a fraction of their value. By 2005, Rosneft had become Russia's second-largest producer of oil and gas. In 2013 it acquired its rival TNK-BP as well.
The spectre of Yukos still haunts the bureaucrats of Khanty-Mansiisk. Last winter, Nefteyugansk suffered a series of breakdowns in its utilities, leaving many residents without heating.
But the main problem, according to Ura-ru, is not burst pipes. The local residents’ taps produce not water, but a cloudy, greasy substance, and sometimes even a black liquid bearing a distinct resemblance to crude oil. The regional and municipal authorities say that the problems go back to the time when Yukos practically owned the town.
The locals, however, are sceptical: in a letter to Vladimir Putin, they wrote ‘our water quality has been deteriorating year on year for a decade now. Our tap water is not only undrinkable; we cannot even wash in it’.
Rosprirodnadzor has now opened an administrative case against Rosneft for violating regulations governing bodies of water, which may lead to their contamination and obstruction. If found guilty, the officials in charge may face a fine of 30-40,000 roubles (£320-430): the official monthly salary of Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin is 500-700 times that sum.
The investigation of the incident is now in the hands of the Khanty-Mansiisk public prosecutor, whose press officer Inga Snatkina told me: it is still too early to talk about the extent of the damage or who is responsible for it. The results of the investigation, she says, should be known by the end of July.Sideboxes Related stories: The problems of environmental activism in Russia Discounting the future of climate change in Russia Rights: CC by NC 4.0