Monday, 31 January 2011

Whither Egypt? - Reform, Repression or Revolution?

It began in Tunisia, then spread to Algeria within hours before reaching Yemen in the East and settling in the most important revolt of them all in Egypt. The January 2011 uprising of the Arab masses has been fermenting for a long long time. Millions across the region bravely faced down their hated security services and brutal regimes. The scenes are reminiscent of those beamed around the world 20 years ago from Eastern Europe. The revolt of the Arab peoples has the potential to be just as earth shattering.
We've seen nothing like this before there. Not on this scale. The raw voice of the people with all its confusion and political divisions is nonetheless agreed on one thing, change has come and the dictatorships have to go.
But what changes are being sought and which won? These revolts are economic, social and political in character. The standard of living across the region is falling dramatically as food and other basic necessities cost more and more. The social conditions in Egyptian society for example with 12million people living in Cairo alone have been hellish for many many years. The issue here is not whether or not to fight for change but how.
If the dam burst in Tunis it became a tsunami by the time it reached Cairo. The scent of democracy is in the nostrils of tens of millions in dozens of countries.
President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, fearing the enormity of this unprecedented political revolt, was forced to make unparalleled changes to the Egyptian constitution within minutes. So much then for the oft repeated line of political reactionaries the world over that 'things cannot be changed overnight'. Revolutionary moods seldom stand on ceremony. Mubarak realised this entirely and within hours installed a Prime Minister to listen to the demands of the protesters. This despite the fact Egypt has had no such position before. In turn his manoeuvre was treated with contempt by protesters sensing his weakness. Their boldness was further encouraged when
they learned he had appointed Sulieman his hated head of security services to the post. He also gave new powers to his former Air Force Chief. Mubarak has gambled on the loyalty of the military and at same time challenged his critics to a waiting game. He hopes the protesters run out of steam. The stakes are high on all sides.
Of course the other remarkable feature of this piece of history, watching it from the comfort of a Scottish armchair, is the response of British and American Imperialism. Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton both insist the people have 'legitimate grievances'.
No, really? Could this be the same countries who have done more than any other in the world to bolster Mubarak and assist his brutal military dictatorship. Where does he get his guns and instruments of repression from Mr Hague? Now that Cameron and Obama see the writing on the wall they change horses, flash their 'democratic credentials' and speak about the 'legitimate grievances of the people' before warning Mubarak not to put down the revolt.
The hypocrisy of these people! Mubarak has been a hated dictator for 30 years in Egypt. Yet he simply could not have survived to repress the Egyptian people without US and British complicity. In return for his backing of Israel's maltreatment of the Palestinians for example or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Mubarak was showered with privileges by the US and Britain
such as the latest military hardware with which to suppress his own people. This is well known in Egypt and it is therefore little wonder they express such hatred for his British and American 'handlers'.
What happens next depends on the political balance of forces, the decisions of the leaders of the key parties and the strength of will on both sides. Mubarak will not stand down voluntarily, he will have to be removed. Equally if the protesters lose momentum he will survive. The political struggle is not just between the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and the Wests preferred standard bearer Mohammed El Baradei on the other. There are many other forces out there seeking to direct the political unrest and frustration and seeking to improve the lives, standard of living and political rights of tens of millions.
One thing can be said with certainty the sands have shifted in Egypt now. The radical mass protests of the past 7 days have changed Egypt for ever.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Afghanistan 2011, the year withdrawal begins?

2011 will be a critical year for Britain's occupation of Afghanistan.
Canada has already announced the withdrawal of its troops this year concluding that 'a decade at war is long enough. Neither the Canadian public nor the troops themselves have any appetite to stay longer'. The Canadians follow the Dutch who ended their deployment in 2010. Their military chief General Peter van Uhm expressed grave doubts about the entire military strategy handing the base in Uruzgan back to the US.
David Cameron has repeatedly stated that a phased British withdrawal begins this summer. Like Barrak Obama he has staked his political reputation on this promise. So will he keep it? The precedents are not good. Such promises have been made for the past ten years. Who can forget John Reid, Blair's Defence Secretary, in 2001 casually announcing that 'British troops will be home by Christmas without a shot being fired'? Former communist Reid today sits, ermine clad, beside his peers in the House of Lords, honoured by the Empire for services rendered whilst the carnage escalates. Obama and Cameron realise the stakes are enormous but privately are advised the prospect of meaningful withdrawal is remote. US Commander General David Petraeus has repeatedly warned them the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. Interviewed by BBC Foreign Affairs Editor John Simpson recently he again conceded that a political solution had to be secured. Consequently 'back channel talks' with Taliban leaders continue. Whilst the misnamed International Security and Assistance Force [ISAF] talks up paltry military advances and promise to 'hand Afghanistan over to a 'National Army and Police Force'' they are under no illusions about either objective.
Meanwhile the Pentagon admit in their annual report that 'Efforts to reduce insurgent capacity, such as safe havens and logistics support from Pakistan and Iran, have not produced measurable results.' With characteristic understatement they add' The Taliban's strength lies in the Afghan population's perception that coalition forces will soon leave and a Taliban victory is inevitable. The Taliban is not a popular movement but it exploits a population frustrated by weak governance.' In other words Afghans have no love for the Taliban but they are even more disgusted by the catastrophic failure of Karzai's government to provide economic support or security of any kind. Unemployment stands at 70%. Patrick Cockburn reported [The Independent 13/11/10] that $52billion in economic aid pumped into Afghanistan in recent years has made no difference whatsoever to the endemic poverty there such is the rampant corruption and racketeering at all levels. Of 23million people more than 9million live in abject misery. A further 5million survive on £23 per month. Tens of thousands are dying of starvation. This shocking picture is only matched by the political poverty. Obama has witnessed a staggering loss of support. His inability to defeat the Taliban is seen as part of a wider incompetence. A large majority of Americans oppose his ongoing involvement in this conflict. The same is true in Britain.
Pro rata British military casualties in Afghanistan have been heavier than anyone. Some 350 British soldiers have been killed and countless others maimed and injured. This compares to 950 US fatalities. [Of course both figures are tiny compared to 50,000 civilian losses]. The US has more than 100,000 troops but the British with 9,000 have a casualty rate twice as high.
'Our strategy is to train up the Afghan National Army and Police Force to take over. Only then can we leave' says David Cameron echoed by the entire UK political establishment. This strategy is both dishonest and bogus. There is no such thing as the 'Afghan National Police Force or Army'. Those men in uniform masquerading as ANP/ANA officers are paid by local warlords, it is to them they pledge their loyalty and take instruction. Karzai's authority barely reaches Kabul city limits. Taken collectively the ANA/ANP are simply not fit for purpose. Drug addicted, demoralised and infiltrated by the Taliban each is utterly despised by the civilian population for its brutality and corruption. It is no match for the incorruptible, drugless, death defying, better equipped and highly motivated Taliban resistance.
Plans to install a puppet President and develop a pliant, police force and army are as old as the occupation itself. They were part of Blair and Bush's exit plan when they invaded in 2001. Cameron and Obama's political fiction is therefore nothing new.
So in 2011 the ISAF strategy amounts to a muddled mixture of ongoing military skirmishes, controlling Taliban-lite regions of the North and West, back channel talks to Taliban leaders and fitful efforts to turn a 'pigs ear' of a National Police Force/Army into a silk purse.
This muddle will undoubtedly continue through 2011 to produce further pointless carnage with numerous British and American troops and countless Afghan civilians killed. And for what?

Friday, 14 January 2011

Fuel poverty reaching crisis point

Carolyn Churchill's article in Wednesday's Herald 'More energy bill misery ahead' [12/1/11] sent shivers down my spine and I suspect I wasn't the only one. On reading further my blood began to boil as details of further gas and electricity price rises were forecast.
In November the Scottish Government released figures showing a threefold increase in 'fuel poverty' levels. More than 770,000 households in Scotland are now in this position paying more than 10% of their income on energy bills. Worse still was the enormous rise in those experiencing 'extreme fuel poverty' [spending 20% of household income on keeping warm]. And all this before the bills arrive for the coldest winter in living memory.
In a largely unreported section of the Scottish Government announcement was the revelation that Alex Salmond has abandoned his 2007 manifesto commitment to eradicating fuel poverty in Scotland by 2014.
So with the average combined gas and electricity bill now £1,300 a year and, as Carolyn Churchill's article warns, another rise likely and the situation fast reaching crisis point the population is to be left to the mercy of profiteering power companies.
The human misery behind these figures is appalling. What's the number of cold related deaths going to be this winter? Millions of Scots are now unable to pay these exorbitant gas and electricity bills amid an economic downturn with spiralling prices and tax rises?
In an energy rich country like ours this is nothing short of a national disgrace. It doesn't have to be like this.