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samedi 29 décembre 2012

Friend or Foe?

There's an interesting piece of analysis in the New York Times about rising Sunni power in the Middle East. 

It focuses on Egypt, Turkey and Qatar and the role they play in countering the so-called "Shia Crescent", of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. And while it's true that power is shifting in the Middle East, choosing to side with emerging powers is not the best move for the US or European allies.

Your blogger responded to the article in the comments section:

A longer view of who is an ally and who is enemy shows that none of these situations is immutable. Iran was a close ally under the Shah, but not as the Islamic Republic. However, the mistake is interpret a link between religious governments and anti-American sentiment that does not take into account American actions. If populations vote for Islamist parties, it means those parties were able to appeal to enough people to win an election.
The question is why they are appealing and part of why is that secular leaders, often in concert with America, were often a disaster, enriching themselves while failing to develop their countries, repressing their populations, and leading many of their citizens to feel powerless and humiliated. Choosing an alternative (which is usually Islamist, since dictators made organizing other opposition next to impossible) is a way for them make their voices heard and maybe secure governments more responsive to the needs of their population.
While none of this augurs a situation where these countries are close American allies, nothing prevents useful cooperation on areas of shared interest, which might be better for the US in the long run, anyway.
The article does question US relations with leaders in the changing Middle East, but it continues to assume that American governments should and will exercise influence over these leaders.
Clearly the old leaders Washington relied on to enforce its will, like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are gone or at least eclipsed. But otherwise confusion reigns in terms of knowing how to deal with this new paradigm, one that could well create societies infused with religious ideology that Americans find difficult to accept. The new reality could be a weaker Iran, but a far more religiously conservative Middle East that is less beholden to the United States.
If newly elected governments in the Middle East are more conservative, that reflects the choice of their populations. Now, there is a big difference between voting for an alternative and that vote signaling a mandate to implement widespread social changes, as opposition in Egypt and Tunisia demonstrates.

Your blogger also takes issue with the way that anti-American sentiment and religious conservatism are linked. Islamists are not nearly so concerned with how Americans live their lives at home as they are with US Foreign Policy's effects on their lives. Thus, being religious does not make someone anti-American, but suffering the effects of American policies may drive Middle Easterners to identify more closely with their religion.

Currently, populations in the Middle East are debating the role religion should play in government and more broadly in society. Although this debate is not new (there is a great deal of scholarly writing on the subject, throughout Islamic history and not just the 19th Century thinkers whose influence is still important), the difference today is that it is more democratic. Higher levels of literacy and the interconnectedness that technology makes possible allow a far greater number of people to take part in the discussion.

However, this is not a discussion that the US should expect to influence directly. There is a large difference between a useful exchange of ideas and a heavy-handed imposition of norms.  Many of the freedoms that underpin the American constitution do serve as an inspiration for people the world over, but how they choose to protect them is their business. 

The best course is for Western powers to avoid being too closely bound with any Middle Eastern governments. Where cooperation is possible, working together should be encouraged, but taking sides, either with particular leaders, or with one faction against another risks not only embroiling the US in conflicts we do not fully understand, but also further hurts our reputation abroad and adds legitimacy to anti-American sentiments.

And if that didn't convince you, there's a hilarious send-up of the Iran-Contra scandal from American Dad that demonstrates the pitfalls of taking sides and being overly involved in the internal affairs of other countries:

Update: Juan Cole also wrote a piece about the same issue, although less America-focused. Here are what he sees as the biggest changes from a US perspective:

A Sunni-dominated Levant would not necessarily be hostile to the US, though it is likely to bear some grudges for US inaction in Syria. But it would likely be severely hostile to Israel. A galvanized Syrian population and a revolutionary government, plus their support for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, could introduce dangerous new frictions, at a time when the Likud Party in Israel is moving even further to the right. Increased Syrian-Israel tension is likely to be one outcome. A strengthened Hamas might well be another (Hamas is realigning away from Syria-Iran and toward Egypt-FSA).

jeudi 4 octobre 2012

The Family Theory

Right now, it's hard to say very much intelligent about the MENA political situation since events are unfolding so quickly.

However, your blogger has several meta-thoughts about people and how they relate and interact.


The first is what she has tentatively dubbed the "family theory of politics." A major shortcoming of Political Science is that, by focusing on strategy, it forgets the human emotional component of politics. This has enduring relevance, since both governments and populations make decisions based on criteria other than strategic calculations. For instance, your blogger holds that the consensus on Iran is incorrect. Instead, the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is mostly about pride and claiming a particular identity and that although Iran has tensions with Israel, they are not really interested in the losses associated with a war.

But in the same vein, pride and hurt feelings play a very large role in international politics. For instance, in the relationships between countries, tone counts a lot. Good advice is meaningless if the way it's delivered denigrates the receiving country. Or even more fundamentally, many leaders, like teenagers, just don't like being told what to do. In fact, even if what they're being told is in their interest, their emotional response may lead them to act differently.

Additionally, "family theory" is applicable to the relationship between allies. Often, the relationship between allies is similar to the one between a parent and a child. Whether or not it should be more a relationship between equals is another question entirely. Yet, in the same way that a good parents encourages a child's independence and self-sufficiency, so too should the "parent" country. Often, the United States plays the role of an over-involved parent. Instead of letting the "child" country take care of its own affairs, the US continues to be involved, day-to-day. Soon, any gratefulness dissipates, and the "child" country begins to feel resentment. Of course, the United States is not the only nation that plays this role, but it is arguably the most visible.

Another aspect of the "family theory" is the idea of apologizing versus infallibility. Candidate Romney has used  President Obama's handling the offensive film/Libya attack as an example of his weakness, and his apparent lack of pride in American exceptionalism. However, it is unhelpful to take the attitude that every action is correct. Parents generally want what is best for their children, and they act accordingly. And yet, sometimes they make the wrong decision. When they do, it's better to deal with the wrong decision honestly. Otherwise, resentment will fester and grow.

vendredi 3 août 2012

Previous Revolutions

To go out with a bang from her current job, your blogger wrote an article about an item here in Philadelphia that resonates with current debates about rights and the will of the people.

One thing that gets complicated in the spread of ideas is who owns the idea and how the ideas are transmitted. For instance, many revolutionary ideals, most obviously liberty, equality and fraternity, are closely identified with the French Revolution. The narrative of class struggle often uses the Russian Revolution as a jumping off point. Both of these ideas perceive and present themselves as universal, even if they are often interpreted differently according to location.

And yet, there is a good deal of push-back. For instance, in the Maghreb, political parties need to tread carefully when they espouse "European" ideals, or risk being identified as the "hizba faransa" and labeled as traitors. And there is plenty of talk of "cultural imperialism." However, there is a difference between forcing a system onto an unstable state, and benefiting from a free exchange of ideas. Colonialism understandably makes some people wary of ideas, but it would be unwise to dismiss them out of hand.

Of course, not everyone goes around in their daily life comparing political systems. It might, in fact, be helpful to focus on what themes systems have in common, instead of pitting them against one another. Unfortunately, as the Poetic Politico points out, sometimes people in power view this as a threat, instead of considering that it might provide a useful lens for people experiencing a painful transition.

lundi 16 juillet 2012

Putting History to Work

In general, your blogger tries to stay away from responding to columns and articles that don't deal with the core themes of the blog. However, this Brooks column in the Times paints a drastically edited vision of American History that obscures the interesting shades of gray. Since your blogger maintains that good decisions (and good policy) can only be made with good information, it is important to develop a more nuanced world view.

Earlier this week, David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times entitled “Why our Elites Stink.” He claimed that in that past, our country was led by a male WASP elite who had a leadership code, and that our current meritocratic elite does not, and this is the root of the lack of confidence in our institutions. My quarrel isn't with his conclusion, which is a separate issue, but on the purported historical facts.

Both of the main premises are inaccurate. First, the historical WASP elite were far from paragons of virtue. And second, and perhaps more important other, more diverse elites are not new, they are just more visible.

A quick survey of the 19th and early 20th century reveals scandals of every kind. From playboy Harry K. Thaw's murder of the architect Stanford White, to the custody battle over Gloria Vanderbilt's inheritance, the WASP elite were engaged in all kinds of embarrassing and scandalous behavior in their private lives. However, their public lives could be equally problematic. William Randolph Hearst engaged in “yellow journalism” in order to increase sales and gain an edge over Joseph Pulitzer's publications and was involved in the notoriously corrupt New York political machine Tammany Hall. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil is the textbook example of a monopoly and the justification for anti-trust laws. Many other household names were also “robber barons,” including J.P Morgan, Andrew Mellon, and Daniel Drew.

Part of what Brooks is getting at when he references their code is that many of these men were philanthropists, who lent their names and their fortunes to colleges, hospitals, and other public institutions. And yet, biographer Ron Chernow explains, in his 1998 book Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., that the two traits can coexist: “What makes [Rockefeller] problematic—and why he continues to inspire ambivalent reactions—is that his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure.” While he may be the archetype, many other similar figures also embodied these two contradictory traits, contributing large amounts of money to worthy causes while simultaneously engaging in questionable and unethical behavior.

So much for the vaunted code of the WASP elite. But Brooks' other premise is also flawed. He asserts:
“Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.”
True, a network of white Protestant men exercised a great deal of power, but they were not the only network at the time, they were simply the most visible. Brooks' completely disregards the role of non-WASP elites in American History, including African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, women, and various ethnic groups.

In parallel with mainstream WASP institutions, other groups established colleges and universities, hospitals, and mutual aid societies, and were able to reach positions of power in government, business and the media. When African-Americans, women, Catholics and Jews were not welcome or faced quotas in admissions, they created their own. These institutions gave them access to education and the accompanying social mobility. Additionally, at mainstream institutions where they were considered outsiders, these minority groups created support networks, such as the black and Jewish fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha and Alpha Epsilon Pi. Often, prominent men can be traced to these networks, similarly to the famous women, from Frances Perkins to Admiral Grace Hopper to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, until recently, were predominately graduates of women's colleges.

The non-Protestant elites who were able to rise to power despite the odds are certainly admirable. Today, there are fewer formal barriers to entry, though prejudice and discrimination continue to exist. So what point does Brooks want to make? He says:
“ this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.”
What promise does he mean? That diversity engendered by meritocracy in positions of authority would somehow magically make them function without difficulty? That everyone would be virtuous and trustworthy? I've established that they were not in the past, and that privilege did not guarantee probity. Our current system is not perfect, but no system will be. At least our current one has the benefit of being more representative of our country as a whole, and not shutting out eager and competent people based on their membership in less favored groups. Our problems will not be solved by a return to a mythical past. Brooks' Golden Age illusion is just that; an illusion.

vendredi 13 juillet 2012

Another Letter in the Times

Recently the New York Times Magazine published a feature on Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Secretary Clinton has been showing up in the media often, whether the subject is analysis of her tenure at State, or the possibility of another presidential candidacy in the future.

Your blogger has an issue with the tone and attitude of some of the comments reported about Secretary Clinton:

I’m tired of this meme, oft-repeated in these pages, about Hillary Clinton being “dutiful” and “a Girl Scout.” Being a committed, honorable public servant willing to work in a collegial way with your rivals should not be characterized as either someone’s loyal hound or as a teenage girl (despite all the respect and admiration I feel for the Girl Scouts as an organization). The people who choose to describe Clinton this way are showing their bias, their entitlement and more than a little poor judgment.

This doesn't mean your blogger agrees with all of Secretary Clinton's decisions. However, there is a difference between policy decisions and the way she conducts herself with her employees, with the President, and with other members of the Administration. While she should not just tow the President's line, it is far better to discuss and compromise than to erupt into an embarrassing battle of egos.

Note: This blog references the New York Times often. While your blogger consults other domestic papers, international news sources, specialized publications and blogs, there is value in paying close attention to the U.S. paper of record. Despite some limitations, including unselfconscious privilege, the Times remains a platform for both reporting and opinion makers.

lundi 18 juin 2012

A Bold Idea for Syria

Turkey + Syria = a way out?
Eighteen months ago, all kinds of people had opinions about how Syria wouldn't be swept up in the Arab Spring, and said things about Syria needing a strong leader to enforce unity. That didn't work out they way some people expected. The MENA region today is far from what most people imagined a scant two years ago and is still in flux. Anything can happen.Commentators are often faulted for criticizing and not proposing solutions. Your blogger enjoys an exercise in creative problem solving, so here's a far-outside-the-box idea for Syria.

Let's consider some of the problems facing Syria and any transition scenario:

  • Syria has some perceived unsavory allies, including Russia and Iran, as well as Hezbollah
  • Syria is riven with ethnic and Sectarian divides: Kurds, Alawites, Christians, Druze.
  • Alawite domination and army control create the possibility of purges and revanchism in the case of a transition.
  • Syria has a young, poor population and significant economic problems. Additionally, Syria is not well integrated into international governance structures.

To remedy these problems, Syria should affiliate with Turkey. The actual adhesion process would need to be negotiated, although the Syrian territory could be grafted onto the Turkish province and district system without too much trouble, especially since the train systems link up. Of course, this couldn't happen without the Syrian population being consulted, ideally through a referendum.

Here is what Syria could gain by affiliating with Turkey:

  • Access to Turkey's growing and diversified economy. Syria's economy is dominated by state-run industry, and who controls these industries following a transition is a problem. Opening them up to bids from Turkish business would allow integration into Turkey's economy and would spread gains both within Turkey and Syria, helping to alleviate Syria's high unemployment.
  • Access to Turkey's institutions, including multi-party democracy, independent judiciary, and educational system. Also to Turkey's status in international organizations like NATO, OECD and the G-20. This would avoid the necessity of building these institutions and institutional relationships from scratch and would ease Syrians' transition by allowing them to adapt incrementally to pre-existing institutions instead of creating their own from scratch.
  • Merging with Turkey would prevent an Iraq-style sectarian revenge. Although Alawites would not longer hold their dominant position, they would be replaced by existing Turkish institutions, which Syrians could join, instead of by revanchist Sunni Muslim groups, Islamist or not.
  • Integrating the remaining Syrian Army with the Turkish Army would provide an appropriate outlet for military skills and would prevent them from seeking mercenary employment elsewhere or joining insurgent groups.

And here's what Turkey could gain from Syria's adhesion.

  • Turkey would gain more coastline (to Tartus), access to a long stretch of the Euphrates, and to Syria's oil and natural gas deposits.
  • Turkey would gain 22 million new citizens. Prime Minister Erdogan has made comments about the need for Turkey to have a young and dynamic population to sustain economic growth and development.
  • Turkey could expand its historical tourism business to include sites in Syria, continue various Syrian cultural festivals, and expand its status as a cultural capital, using Syrian artists and writers to appeal to its Arab neighbors.
  • The added Syrian population and land area would enhance Turkey's strategic importance, especially as a bridge to the Arab/Muslim world.

Then, what are the drawbacks to Syria?
  • Clearly, Syria would be giving up sovereignty.
  • Local elites and civil service employees would lose their status once absorbed into Turkey.
  • Closer adhesion with Turkey would destabilize Syrian ties with erstwhile allies like Russia and Iran.

And what about drawbacks for Turkey?
  • In the short term, all the new citizens would be a drain on Turkish resources.
  • The presence of Syria's Kurds could exacerbate Turkey's issues with its own Kurds and with the PKK.
  • Adding Syria's territory and its border with Israel could heighten Turkish tensions with Israel.
  • Syria's population currently also includes a significant proportion of Iraqi refugees, who would then become Turkey's problem
  • There is the risk of Syria's sectarian tensions spilling over into Turkey.
  • Turkey would have to deal with issues like whether Syria had a nuclear program (the nuclear facility that Israel took out in the early 2000s).
These are probably not the only drawbacks. However, other scenarios have greater, more serious drawbacks.

It might seem strange to float the idea of merging Syria and Turkey. What about Syria's pride and national identity? What about the obvious difference like language? Those obstacles exist, but if the same lines of thinking only lead to disintegration and chaos, what's the harm in considering an idea out of left field?

Addendum: Later in June, Syria shot down a Turkish plane. While this doesn't kill the arguments presented here, one does have to wonder what the Turkish plane was doing in Syrian airspace.

lundi 11 juin 2012

Quel changement sous la présidence Hollande?

Installé depuis peu, et en periode de bac, le gouvernment Hollande a abrogé le fameux ciculaire Guéant qui embêtait tant les étudiants étangers.

Ceci est une bonne chose. Il était pas du tout souhaitable de renvoyer les étudiants qui ont battu pour avoir leur place en France dans l'attente d'y trouver un travail. Cela risque fort de désillusionner des gens qui étaient jusqu'à là favorables et attachés à la France et de créer de la rancune.

La justification du gouvernement sortant était en quelque sort que "l'Afrique avait besoin de ses diplômés", plus que la France.

Mais cette perspective ne comprend pas tout. Le probleme du "brain drain" étant réelle, il fallait néanmoins s'interroger sur les mobiles qui amènent des étrangers à faire leurs études en France.

En premier, il y a la qualité des institutions universitaire, qui, quoi que discutable, est souvent plus élévée que la plupart des universités dans leur pays d'origine. Il y a aussi la question de liberté, surveillance,  et censure, qui pourrait s'imposer dans certaines domaines.

Mais, au dela des ces considérations, il faut bien comprendre les enjeux dans les pays d'origine. Accéder a la faculté n'est qu'une étape. Après avoir obtenu un diplôme, la recherche d'un emploi se présente souvent difficile a cause de corruption. Faute du réseau ou des moyens pour graisser des pattes, un diplôme ne recolte que le désespoir. Obtenir un diplôme à l'étranger est aussi lié avec le possibilité de se faire embaucher à l'étranger, donc de créer un réseau professionnel, et de pouvoir compenser les inégalités du pays d'origine.

On peut reprocher au nouveau réglement qu'il ne change pas grand chose. En fait, il est possible de faire la même reproche par rapport aux changements policières et judiciaires de garde à vue pour les sans-papiers en France. Ces reproches contiennent une part de vérité, car la situation des étrangers, doctorants ou sans-papiers, reste toujours difficile. Cependant, le quinquennat Hollande voulait se démarquer de celui de Sarkozy, qui était hostile envers les étrangers.

Alors, un bon coup de pub pour Hollande, mais il faut attendre encore pour voir s'il s'agit de vrais changements ou ce n'est que de la poudre aux yeux.

mardi 29 mai 2012

What Hollande means for France, through the New Yorker's eyes

Sometimes your blogger finds it useful, and less depressing, to take a different spin on world events. And so, to look over what Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker thinks of France's new president, François Hollande. Since so much of the coverage of the elections in the American press focused on the mistaken idea that Hollande's mild manner somehow meant he was inexperienced, Gopnik's more nuanced view-point was a pleasant surprise.

He made several points, worth considering:
  • Hollande is a sort of anti-Sarkozy. While Americans might be comfortable with Sarkozy, may French people are less so. “Sarkozy seemed merely showy, and his energy, over time, merely antic and self-pleasing.”
Elections are decided not only on the merits of the candidates' programs, but also on how they are perceived. While Sarkozy promised changes, French voters were not pleased by his period in office and also important, were not pleased by the image he gave of their country.
  • “Professional worriers worry about the prominence of the political extremes in France—and it’s hard not to worry when their parties take a third of the vote—but that vote wasn’t quite as large, or as big a deal, as it might seem.” Gopnik considers Le Pen and Mélenchon, and their seemingly extreme ideas.
Part of how Americans see politics in other countries is influenced by their familiarity with the two-party system and the fact that it seems to be the “normal” and others are an aberration. Now, there is no reason that everyone needs to have a two-party system, and as various pundits mention regularly in the New York Times, having such a system leads to polarization and makes compromise more difficult. As much as some of Le Pen's public statements may be incendiary or racist, the presence of extremes in the French electoral field is only important if their agenda is implemented, an issue of concern in Sarkozy's politics, particularly towards immigrants.
  • Then Gopnik raises a good point: “What would an actual, honest-to-God Socialist President do in office? Probably not anything particularly socialist—nationalizing the means of production or the like—but, rather, something more along the lines of striking a protective stance.”
Thirty years ago, Mitterrand assumed office and nationalized some industries, but it's hard to imagine that happening today. Other changes might seem slightly more possible; during Mitterrand's term, there was an opening towards diversity, with campaigns like the anti-racist Marche des Beurs in 1983 or “Touche pas à mon pôte.” Since issues concerning the presence of immigrants (or people perceived as immigrants) continues to be a hot-button issue and the Right have played into it, perhaps the election of a Socialist heralds an easing of racial and communitarian tension.
  • Then Gopnik plunges into an examination of American schadenfreude at the problems Europe grapples with during the current economic crisis :
    “A continent torn by the two most horrible wars in history achieved a remarkable half century of peace and prosperity, based on a marriage of liberalism properly so called (individual freedoms, including the entrepreneurial kind) and socialism rightly so ordered (as an equitable care for the common good). Any pleasure taken in the failure of Europe to expunge all its demons threatens to become one more way of not having to examine our own. A mild-mannered, European-minded citizen king is, at least, better than a passionately convinced exceptionalist. France, and Europe, learned that lesson the hard way.” 
Hollande has only just taken office and so this blogger will give him the customary hundred days before making any pronouncements on the direction his government is taking. However, of great interest will be how a Socialist-led France deals with the crises of international affairs, and with former colonies and protectorates in particular.

vendredi 25 mai 2012

More elections, this time in Egypt

Here are some quick thoughts on the Egyptian election.

1. So people are electing a president whose powers are not defined. They will be defined later in the Constitution, once it gets written. Maybe this is putting the cart before the horse, but if all anyone focuses on is that the foundation is not fully laid, nothing will be built.

2. Many of the reports feature quotes where people say that for the first time they feel as though their vote counts and their voice is being heard. This is immeasurably important. In a dictatorship, the choices are be trampled on or join forces with the dictator. Neither one is a very good choice. The possibility of making one's voice heard without abetting a dictatorship is liberating. Once people feel that they can affect what happens to them and believe that there will be dividends to planning for the future, other aspects can take off; business, education, social entrepreneurship. Investing in something for future gains can only happen when people believe that those gains will not be taken away from them. Otherwise, people only focus on the here and now, which is admittedly a Herculean task for the many Egyptians mired in poverty.

3. Some of the reporting focuses on Copts, and their voting to exclude an Islamist candidate. That's an understandable strategy. Clearly, they are worried, and they have reason to be. How popularly elected regimes in Muslim countries deal with religious minorities is an open question. And the answer is often not well, as this op-ed about Indonesia demonstrates.

However, and this is a big however, majority Muslim countries need to come to terms with how they choose to reconcile religion and government. For that reason, the participation of Islamist parties and candidates is key. Religion plays a very important role in Egyptians' lives.  In fact, religion plays an important role in many people's lives, the world over. It's an issue with which we continue to struggle here in the United States, and the way religion and politics intersect evolves and develops with time.

Here are two larger points, about Islamists and elections:

Whether or not third parties are comfortable with Islamists, they represent a political current in Muslim majority states. Since people support them, it is necessary for observers to take them seriously and deal with them, not some imaginary, wish-fulfillment character. And not some telegenic, charismatic, English-speaker. If a candidate or party is trying too hard to win over outsiders, why should Egyptian (or other) voters trust that this person has their interests in mind? Of course, maybe observers should consider the reasons why Islamist parties and candidates garner support. There are a couple reasons. First, people are seeking an alternative to their present leaders, who serve their interests poorly. Second, many people believe that Islamist parties and candidates are more moral and less corrupt. If your country is plagued by corruption and graft, it is rational to seek an alternative. Finally, many workaday people are proud of their religion and heritage and would like to be able to express those feelings openly, which has not been possible under a significant number of dictatorships. Remember that people were arrested in Tunisia just for attending dawn prayers too often before rolling one's eyes and exclaiming "why do they care so much?"

Now, some of the appeal is also based on what Islamist parties claim they will do. And there, as with all such claims, what they say must be taken with a grain of salt. That said, while Islamists are outside of power, they can claim whatever they want, and their claims are not tested. Once they are tested in government, with competing interests and the balancing and compromise that entails, their claims may seem unrealistic. That's not a bad thing; in fact, it's a necessary step to creating a functioning democracy.

Let's develop this idea further. When people vote, they vote for whichever candidate represents what they want or need. Then, if they are happy with that person or party, they can vote for them again. If they are not happy, they can vote for someone else. Different voting schemes allow for different methods of picking candidates. Thus, two rounds, as in Egypt, allows for a fuller field of candidates, to represent a wider variety of opinions, and then the run-off affords citizens the opportunity to fine-tune and recalibrate their expectations. Thus, a person could have entirely different, but equally legitimate reasons for first and second round picks. While this may seem strange from a U.S. two-party viewpoint, it probably actually allows for more viewpoints and possibility of compromise. It's a mistake to look at elections either as an end in themselves or as a finished product. Legitimate government is only possible with long-term, sustained participation by electors, with regular elections to act as a regulating mechanism.

It looks as though the front-runners are Shafik and Morsi. Your blogger would have preferred Aboul Foutoh, since his break with the Muslim Brotherhood represents a crack in the fortress of their monopoly on Islamist politics and a welcome step toward pluralism. Whatever happens in the second round, it will certainly be interesting.

Finally, Egyptians are approaching the elections with humor, which is a nice change of pace from either overly optimistic or non-stop doom and gloom reporting.

dimanche 6 mai 2012

Un petit mot par rapport à l'éléction présidentielle

Un collectif des français d’origine étrangère a publié au Monde une lettre très intéressante, dénonçant le discours xénophobe de la campagne présidentielle. Partout dans la presse, à la fois française et étrangère, l’on voit des analyses de l’effet LePen sur le discours de Sarkozy. La lettre déplore les attaques sur les personnes ayant une origine étrangère, surtout sur la porte-parole de Monsieur Hollande, qui prétende que ses orignie marocaines l’empêche d’être loyale à sa partie.

Ils s’expliquent:
“Ce ‘trop de monde’, c'est nous. Depuis cinq ans, nous, Français d'origine étrangère, subissons les attaques répétées de la majorité qui remet de plus en plus brutalement en cause notre appartenance à la France.”
Et puis ils en énumèrent:
“Le ‘débat’ sur l'identité nationale qui ne questionnait en réalité que l'identité de certains Français trop bronzés pour être honnêtes, les incessants débats sur la laïcité plaçant dans le viseur celles et ceux d'entre nous qui avaient le malheur d'être musulmans, le discours de Grenoble prononcé par Nicolas Sarkozy dans l'optique de dépouiller certains Français de leur nationalité - comme si celle-ci était une option -, les difficultés et humiliations que nous avons rencontrées pour renouveler une simple carte d'identité dès lors qu'un de nos aïeux était lié à un pays étrangers... Ces agressions répétées nous ont placés dans la plus grande insécurité identitaire.”
Moi, comme étrangère travaillant en France (et en banlieue dificile!) a bien connu ce genre d’humiliation…mais ce n’était pas moi qui l’a subi. Petite, blonde aux yeux bleues, j’étais systématiquement la seule à ne pas être contrôller dans le RER, à ne pas avoir besoin de montrer ma carte d’identité même pour le trucs les plus banales, à avoir la porte tenue pour moi lorsque c’était claquée dans le nez de celle qui passait avant ou après moi. Et pourtant, moi je n’étais ni résidente ni citoyenne, je n’avais pris aucun engagement envers la France, sauf mon contract de travail.
Soyons francs. Moi, je passais deux beaux séjours en France, comme étudiante et après comme employée. J’ai goûté aux plaisirs qui font de la France une si belle déstination. Mais j’étais bien consciente que ces plaisirs n’étaient pas offerts à tous et chacun. Il s’agit d’une discrimination flagrante, ce qui empêche les français, toutes sortes confondues, de viser et achever des buts communs.
Être citoyen c’est un pacte, oui, mais c’est un pacte qui va dans les deux sens. Ce n’est pas normal que l’on demande aux français d’origine étrangère d’avoir à chaque moment de la journée de se montrer plus français que les franco-français. Ni que l’on fasse d’eux le bouc émissaire de tous les maux de la France.
Au cours du débat, les candidats ont évoqué les préstations sociales et l’idée que “les étrangers” en abusent. S’il existe vraiment des problèmes à la CAF, essayons de les réussir. S’il existent des problèmes sécuritaires, abordez-les. Mais, en stigmatisant une certaine partie de la population, l’on a tendance, non seulement ne pas résoudre les problèmes réelles, mais d’aggraver la fracture et de faire monter les tensions, là où il serait mieux de les apaiser.

mercredi 18 avril 2012

What does Garry Kasparov have to say about Democracy?

The power of pawns.
Earlier this month, your blogger had the opportunity to see Garry Kasparov. And what does chess have to do with democracy, you might ask? Quite a lot, it turns out.

After reminiscing about his chess career, Kasparov got down to political business. Here's the gist of what he had to say:

   1.  It's important to work across ideologies. If we wait to work together only with people whose views we share entirely, we'll never get anywhere. For instance, in Russia, leftist, nationalists and others all need to work together. Another key part of protest needs to be the principle of non-violence. Non-violence lets you keep the moral high ground.
Kasparov was also adamant that Revolution seeks dignity, and fights against corruption and impunity. He warned that it is unwise to say that certain groups aren't ready for democracy and one of the worst things that other countries can do is provide democratic cover to countries like Russia by pretending they are functioning democracies and including them in groups like the G8. He emphasized that appearing at conferences like that is a huge propaganda win for authoritarian rulers.
  1. He reiterated the importance of crowd-sourcing and social media as conduits for expression. He compared them to many drops, which together make a wave that can be very powerful and that the trends build over time. Then he compared the web to print and evoked Luther and the Reformation and the dissemination of those ideas with Gutenberg's press. More than ever, now, according to Kasparov, information is easier to access and is no longer an elite privilege.

  2. Then he spoke about progress. He said he was very, very worried because of the slow down in innovation and that people are afraid to take risks. He gave some examples; the moon landing, the development of credit, automobiles. All in the past. While these are important developments, new things aren't happening and if they are, they are in tiny increments. He said don't be satisfied with the status quo; always question it.

None of this is specific to Russia. They are applicable to the Arab Spring, to many African nations, and to people everywhere who are hoping to make their societies more equitable and transparent.

lundi 2 avril 2012

What's going on in Mali?

If Kal at the Moor Next Door can post first thoughts in response to something, your blogger thinks she can too.

Every day seems to bring new news about the coup in Mali, so any definitive view is premature. So far, coverage has mostly been negative.  Latest reports also indicate that in addition to sanctions by fellow West African nations, the coup leaders lost control of Timbuktu to the Tuareg rebels. 

Here are the main thoughts, which will be developed later:
1. Is this really so surprising? Things have been getting out of hand in Mali for a while, but regional focus had been on Wade in Senegal and his desire to extend his term.

2. Foreign Policy had a blog post asking "Why are coups always led by colonels?" but specifically in West Africa, there are even more junior officers: Rawlings in Ghana, Tolbert in Liberia was ousted by privates and NCOs, Thomas Sankara was a captain...

3. Noise has been made about US training of the coup leaders. That might be important or it might not. Lots of people do military training in the US, because the US has facilities and resources. It doesn't automatically make every trainee a US agent, any more than doing a post-doc at CERN commands a scientist to work forever exclusively for Switzerland's benefit.

Finally, your blogger has been doing a lot of catch-up background reading. However, she'll need to bump up Why Nations Fail since it's just been mentioned by Tom Friedman and therefore will probably be hugely popular with library patrons.

lundi 26 mars 2012

An Historical Perspective / Un regard historique

It's always interesting to take a look at the past, and even more interesting to rediscover something. As the events of the past year have forced people worldwide to take another look around, your blogger investigated the familiarity people in the United States had with world events a century ago.

 This article looks at how people in the past were introduced to other countries and cultures.

C’est toujours passionant de considérer le passé, et encore plus intéressant de redécouvrir quelque chose. Comme les évènements de l’année passée ont poussé des gens à regarder autour d’eux, votre bloggueuse a mené une enquête sur les connaissances des Américains il y a un siècle. 

Cet article s’interroge sur la découverte d’autres pays et cultures dans le passé.

vendredi 17 février 2012

Anthony Shadid RIP

Veteran Foreign correspondent for the New York Times Anthony Shadid passed away Thursday, while reporting inside Syria, of an asthma attack. Shadid was reporting with photographer Tyler Hicks. If it seems that those two names together ring a bell, they were both kidnapped and held, along with two others, in Libya last year.

While this blogger did not always agree with the conclusions Shadid drew, the quality of his reporting and his dedication were impressive. It is important to remember that while information seems so readily available these days, many people, both professional journalists and civilians, put themselves in danger in order to make this possible.

Condolences to Shadid's wife, Nada Bakri, also a Times reporter, their son Malik, and Shadid's daughter Leila.

Anthony SHADID, journaliste correspondent à l’étranger pour le New York Times, est décédé jeudi, suite à une crise d’asthme, en mission en Syrie. Shadid était accompagné par le photographe Tyler Hicks. Si les deux noms sautent aux yeux, c’est parce qu’ils étaient enlevés et détenus avec deux collègues en Libye, l’année dernière.

Malgré que votre bloggeuse ne partageait toujours pas les mêmes avis que Shadid, la qualité de ses reportages et son engagement passionnée imposait le respect. Il est très important de se souvenir que même si l’on a l’impression d’avoir un accès facile aux informations, c’est du au travail hasardeux des journalistes professionnels et des civiles sur place.

Sincères condoléances à sa femme Nada Bakri, également journaliste du New York Times, leur fils Malik et la fille de Shadid, Leila.

lundi 30 janvier 2012

Music, Message and Solidarity

Mali Yaro and Goumbe Star
On Saturday, your blogger attended a performance by Mali Yaro and Goumbe Star  at the Calvary Center in West Philadelphia. It was put together by Crossroads Music, which bring musicians from all over the world and promotes understanding and cross-cultural respect through music. Mali Yaro (Doulai Boureima) and his expected guest, Hadiza Mangou are from Niger, in the Sahel region of West Africa. Their music deals with social issues, like disease, armed conflict, and women's issues.

The performance was very entertaining. The combo was Mali Yaro as lead singer, Mahamadoul-Habibou Elh Amadou on bass, and Seydou Mounkaila on percussion and Omar Tankari on guitar. (The last two might be incorrect, as they were only introduced very briefly at the end of the concert.) Apparently, sometimes there are additional musicians, including a rhythm guitarist and a trumpet player, but they were not there Saturday. The music ranged from slow love songs to upbeat, bluesy numbers conducive to dancing.

The true pièce de résistance was their dancer, who appeared to have dwarfism. He was an energetic and acrobatic performer, who encouraged audience participation and, at one point, engaged in a frenetic dance-off with a particularly enthusiastic audience member. The other aspect of the audience participation was something common to griot (jeli) performances, where audience members shower the performers with dollar bills. Both the West African members of the audience and others took part in this ritual, which created a sense of complicity in the room. Since the majority of the songs were in Hausa, at various points throughout the evening, an audience member came up on stage and explained the themes discussed in the music. A couple of songs were sung in French, one “Niger uni et prospère” which talks about different groups in Niger coming together and laying aside their arms in order to build a better future.

Besides being an enjoyable experience, music like this is important for two reasons. The first is the ability to circulate messages within societies, especially those where the populations are spread out and rural (as in Niger) and where other media, like TV or the internet might be hard to access or incomprehensible to populations with high levels of illiteracy. The second reason goes beyond Niger and encompasses the cross-cultural element that Crossroads seeks to facilitate. Experiencing the music and dance of another culture is a window for others onto that culture, and helps create links and mutual respect and understanding. This is particularly important, given the current political context, where we have an unfortunate tendency to view other cultures with hostility and suspicion.

The New York Times had an interesting op-ed about music and its political power. It focuses on rap and explains the power that rap has to communicate ideas among young people. More controversially, it considers the case of Youssou N’Dour and asserts:
“...mbalax singers are typically seen as older entertainers who often support the government in power. In contrast, rappers, according to the Senegalese rapper Keyti, 'are closer to the streets and can bring into their music the general feeling of frustration among people.'”
However, the assertion that older singers, or singers who use a different style, are close to the government is problematic. First of all, as Mali Yaro and Goumbé Star demonstrate, singers using different styles are capable of transmitting powerful social messages. Another example is Salif Keita, whose music also carries an important social message and speaks out against discrimination.

While the Times article argues that this is inaccessible to many people, since “Rapping can simulate a political speech or address, rhetorical conventions that are generally inaccessible to the marginal youth who form the base of this movement.” your blogger finds this reasoning to be condescending. Later in the article, the author draws an analogy between the way rappers convey messages and the traditional art form of griots. If West Africans were able to understand the (sometimes complicated) cultural conventions of griots in the past, there is no good reason that they should now lack this ability, unless they are ignorant of their own cultural heritage. If so, that is a larger problem.

Furthermore, the article takes an overly rosy view of the messages that rappers transmit. While some might critique the corrupt actions of government or pernicious social problems, others might use rap to attack others, like in the case of the rapper Psyco-M. Additionally, rap is not necessarily the product of mature reflection, but people can be taken in by fine words, and be persuaded by form rather than content.

However, whatever the message that rap contains, it is certainly useful to create a conversation. Societies across Africa and the Middle East that were previously subject to strict controls on speech are now able to express themselves freely. It's a process, and like electoral politics, it would be naïve to expect these processes of transition to be overly smooth.

As mentioned earlier, music serves a broader purpose as well. It allows people around the world to see into other cultures and to gain appreciation and understanding for them. The internet makes it easier to diffuse music and other creative art forms and makes it possible to exchange ideas that are not only on an elite or professional level. Music helps people to relate to on another and to remember that even faraway people share many of the same hopes and dreams that we do. Each little step towards greater solidarity, each small concert, has a worth, that when put together, is far greater than the sum of its parts.

mardi 17 janvier 2012

Lending a hand at Nawaat

This blogger has been doing a little bit of translation for Nawaat. It's been keeping her quite busy, which explains the lack of new articles.

There will be several articles appearing soon, but in the meantime, take a look at some coverage of Freedom of Expression issues: and