Archive for April, 2011

The past three days I participated in the annual Forum International de Réalités—Réalités is one of Tunisia’s major weekly news magazines—, that took place here. The theme was “La révolution tunisienne: les enjeux de la transition démocratique et le rôle de la société civile.” The quality of the talks and debate was good—I was told by several that my contribution was too ;-)—, with a refreshing absence of langue de bois from the governmental and other official types present (Tunisian and European). Voici un compte-rendu en français. J’ai particulièrement apprécié les interventions de Souhayr Belhassen et Hélé Béji. Mme Béji vient de sortir un livre, intitulé Islam Pride : Derrière le voile (Gallimard). Ça a l’air très intéressant et je vais certainement le lire.

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Well, sort of. He gave a speech at this forum I am presently participating in and then sat down with my panel that followed right after. How about that!

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This is a title of an important post in Democracy Digest, webzine of the National Endowment for Democracy, on how Arab regimes have adapted their survival strategies in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt—but also why these two cases differed in some important respects from Syria, Libya, and other Arab states. The remarks of Steve Heydemann and Eva Bellin, top political science MENA specialists, are particularly good.

Their analyses are pretty much on the same page as my contribution to Democracy Digest back in January. I clearly wasn’t 100% on target—who was?—but I stand by the main points of my analysis. I’ll come back to this later.

(h/t Michael Allen)

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Hama rules

Robert Fisk says it here, though it was Thomas Friedman who coined the expression back in the ’80s. As Fisk reports today, and also Ammar Abdulhamid on the Al Jazeera web site, the s*** is really hitting the fan in Syria now, with mutinies and defections in the army. I never would have predicted that things would reach this point in Syria. After the Tunisian revolution in January, I discounted the possibility that the demonstration effect would spread elsewhere, and particularly to Syria. What’s happening there has me tétanisé. I’ll write more about it soon.

Speaking of Tunisia, I’m there—or, rather, here—at the moment.  As I don’t have a laptop with me and will be fairly busy, I won’t be posting much over the next week-ten days. But I’ll try. And I will give my impressions of the situation here when I get back to Paris.

Back to Hama, for a reminder of what this was, look here.

UPDATE: On Hama 1982, see the images here and watch the last video on this post (which is really worth it). (February 3, 2012)

(photo credit: AFP/Getty)

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On their murders, that is. Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian writer based in Washington. I’ve never met him but have known him, as it were, for almost forty years, as his first book, The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile, was the first I ever read by a Palestinian, back in 1972 or ’73. In the book, Turki recounted his 1948 flight from Palestine as a child, growing up in refugee camps in Lebanon, and coming of age politically in the Beirut hothouse of the 1960s. Turki is a great writer and the book made a strong impression on me (and I still have the copy I purchased at age 16, having recently recovered it from a long lost box of books stashed away in an attic for thirty years). Turki’s 1994 Exile’s Return: The Making of a Palestinian-American was also most interesting.

In any case, Turki has an op-ed from this weekend on the murders of Juliano Mer-Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni (which I have posted on), entitled “Intolerant streak continues to afflict Palestinian society” (h/t Hussein Ibish). Turki is absolutely on the mark here. Do read it.

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Yesterday I wrote on a lead article in the Washington Post—a paper I glance at daily but do not linger over—and have no choice but to do so again, for a second day running. Today’s WaPo has a piece at the top of its web site entitled “Europeans shift long-held view that social benefits are untouchable,” the first line of which reads: “From blanket health insurance to long vacations and early retirement, the cozy social benefits that have been a way of life in Western Europe since World War II increasingly appear to be luxuries the continent can no longer afford.”

Please, spare me. This is one of the most tiresome refrains of American journalists and pundits when it comes to Europe. I’ve been reading and hearing it for decades now. In addition to enumerating—often with a tone of grim satisfaction—the difficulties European states are having in financing social insurance schemes in a time of slow economic growth, American commentators seem to be ever so slightly indignant at these slothful Europeans, like “Who do these Europeans think they are, to think they can have their vacations, socialized medicine, and lives of leisure while we Americans have to work 24/7, pay for their defense, and blah blah blah.”  The subtext, of course, is that Europe will have no choice but emulate the American model (in this, as in everything else), gut the welfare state, and replace it with whatever.

But this is pure bullshit nonsense. First, a problem of form. Americans have an exasperating habit of talking about “Europe” as if it were a single, undifferentiated entity. But when it comes to welfare states, as with everything else (e.g. the tendency of Europeans to speak different languages, have different histories, cultures, state traditions, etc), there are important differences among the states of the continent. The health insurance systems, e.g., differ considerably between Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, etc. The Sécu in France—in which médecine libérale fully participates—is rather different from the NHS in Britain (and, as it happens, the French have as negative an image of the latter as do Americans). There is a world of difference between, say, Denmark and Italy when it comes to closed professions and the ease or difficulty of employers laying off staff. In the domain of day care and universal pre-school education, there is no comparison between France and Germany. Etc, etc. But it doesn’t  matter, as Americans will continue to talk about “Europe” as if it’s all the same (BTW, the French have the same irritating habit of lumping the Americans and British together as the “Anglo-Saxons” and for absolutely everything, but that’s another matter).

Secondly, when American critiques of European states’ “vast and often lavish social safety net[s]” get into the nitty gritty, they fixate mainly on two areas: pensions—specifically the legal retirement age—and health care spending. As for the former, this is being raised across the board in Europe. Unions and the left have contested this, of course, but there is a consensus among the political classes (including governing socialist parties) on the necessity of doing so. As for health care, of course there is waste and abuse—I could give all sorts of anecdotes here—but this is being dealt with too, though without undermining the universality of the systems. American critics do take care not to recommend the American health care system as an alternative model; that would really be too much. On France’s so-called 35-hour work week—more accurately, la réduction du temps de travail—, it has been effectively gutted over the past decade by governments of the right.  And the five/six-week vacations? How civilized. And a great way to raise productivity—workers who have had their batteries recharged, as it were, are happier and work harder—, create employment in the tourism industry, and just make for more decent societies and places to live and work. None of the problems affecting European economies would be solved in the least if paid vacation time were reduced (and which simply won’t happen, as not even the most ultra-libéral politician will ever propose such a thing). I am also quite certain that American journalists and think tank types who snicker at Europeans and their vacations get four weeks or more paid leave themselves (which maybe some don’t take, as they fear opprobrium from their colleagues, or feel they just can’t get away from their jobs; well, that’s their problem). When it comes to vacations and holidays, Europe-denigrating Americans should just STFU can say whatever they want, but they will be ignored.

One thing American critics, and particularly conservatives, seem to forget is that mandatory social insurance schemes have a solid conservative pedigree. In point of fact, the roots of the welfare state are on the right. Friedrich Hayek himself had no problem with the idea of mandatory social insurance.

There is clearly much more to be said on this subject. I hadn’t intended to write on it today but only did so because of the WaPo article, which got me going. I didn’t think I would write for my blog at all today. It’s Easter Monday, a holiday here. I think I’ll go out and do some shopping (as the stores are open, so at least some people are working).

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Today’s Washington Post has a lengthy article on the Obama administration’s failure to close the detention center at Guantánamo. Of all of Obama’s let downs, this is one of the biggest. The culprits? Inadequate White House leadership, certainly, but above all Congress—and the congressional Dems in particular, as the GOP’s opposition was a given—and public opinion. On the latter, I was amazed at the NIMBY reaction of the public—as reflected in polls, man-on-the-street-interviews in the media, and the declarations of elected officials (reflecting the sentiment of their constituents)—, of middle Americans expressing terror at the mere idea that some Al-Qaida suspect could find himself in a maximum security prison several hundred miles from chez eux—in a prison that likely also houses serial killers and pedophile murderers—and that this could bring about terrorist attacks on the American homeland. Boy, are Americans a bunch of pussies. I would have thought that trash talking threats from Osama Bin Laden would prompt Americans—already armed to the teeth and who celebrate military values more than any other Western society—to respond in kind, to get out their Glocks and S&Ws and say “Hey Osama, you just try to attack us again; make our day.” Oh, well.

It looks like the only solution to Guantánamo is regime change in Cuba. Internal regime change, of course: a political evolution in that country that will cast off communism and bring democracy to the Cuban people. This will happen. It’s just a matter of time. And the sooner the better. When it does happen and the US and Cuba restore full diplomatic relations, Cuba will be able to reestablish its sovereignty over Guantánamo Bay. It is not conceivable that normalization of relations between the two countries will not involve this. Even if Cuba allows the US to maintain the naval base there for a period—which is possible—the detention center—a grotesque violation of international law—will be closed. This is for sure. So one more reason to hope for a political transformation in Cuba.

On a somewhat related subject, I recently saw America-based Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest film, ‘Essential Killing’, which won two of the top awards at last year’s Venice Film Festival. In the film, the first part of which is set in Afghanistan (the scenes were shot in the Negev in Israel), Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban warrior (though not overtly designated as such), who kills a number of American soldiers, is captured and waterboarded—the scenes are graphic—, and then put on a military transport plane that is presumably taking him to Guantánamo (but ends up somewhere in northern Europe; these scenes were shot in Norway). Roger Ebert gave it the thumbs up. Also The Guardian. Les critiques en France ont été bonnes aussi.

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