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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Issandr El Amrani’s blog, The Arabist, is one of the best on Arab politics and culture (and I love the masthead). Today he has a good post on the options in Libya (I’m being a copycat here and borrowing from him the great photoshopped image above, which he in turn borrowed from The Economist). Like me, he was conflicted on the wisdom of the Libya intervention. 50-50. Unlike him, I am not between Anthony Cordesman and Helena Cobban. I will take the former’s analysis any day (and on any subject). Cordesman’s piece that El Amrani links to, “Libya: Will the Farce Stay With US (And France and Britain)?,” is worth the read.

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Alfred Stepan, political science Über-specialist on authoritarian regimes and democratic transitions, has a post on the SSRC web site on his recent trip to Tunisia and Egypt. He’s optimistic for Tunisia, somewhat more cautious on Egypt.

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Yadh Ben Achour

Le Monde has a lengthy interview with Yadh Ben Achour, the eminent Tunisian jurist and scholar, who was appointed head of the newly formed Political Reform Commission—which is overseeing Tunisia’s transition process—after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January. He is one of the most important personalities in that country right now.

Yadh Ben Achour : « La Tunisie va connaître de vraies élections libres »
Article paru dans l’édition du 21.04.11
Yadh Ben Achour, chargé de préparer les élections pour l’Assemblée constituante, le 24 juillet, est confiant

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Mohamed Bouazizi

I never thought I would approvingly link to anything by Daniel Pipes, who is not exactly my cup of tea, but he has a nice piece from two days ago on Mohamed Bouazizi as a historical figure.

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Some of the best reporting and analysis on Libya has been by the British journalist Nicolas Pelham, who writes for The Economist (and was until recently an analyst with the International Crisis Group). His most recent pieces are in MERIP and The New York Review of Books.

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This is all over the French news today. On Time magazine’s 2011 list of the 100 “most influential people in the world,” one of the handful of Frenchmen/women is Marine Le Pen. You read that correctly: Marine Le Pen, one of the most influential people in the world

If Mme Le Pen has the slightest influence outside France, I have yet to hear about it. But within France? With whom precisely? Let’s see. Her current electoral mandates are MEP in Strasbourg and regional councillor from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais. La belle affaire. Any wanker can get on a party list and be elected MEP or conseiller régional. It is true that she is now the President of a political party, a party that has exactly zero deputies in the National Assembly, zero senators, and, at the present time, zero mayors (N.B.: there are over 36,000 mayors in France). It is equally true that Mme Le Pen has been on television a lot lately. All sorts of people get on television, but don’t make the Time 100. As for her popularity ratings, the latest IPSOS/Le Point ranking of French politicians has her in 25th place (of 34), with 28% favorable and 68% unfavorable. She does beat out Brice Hortefeux and Claude Guéant, which it would take some doing not to do. But as for that 68% unfavorable figure, this is the highest on the list. Only Ségolène Royal, at 66%, comes close (and Mme Royal isn’t influencing too many people these days). So if Mme Le Pen is influencing folks I’d like to know their names.

Note: one Frenchman who didn’t make the Time 100 is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Managing-Director of the International Monetary Fund—I thought heads of the IMF were by definition influential—, who has an excellent chance of being elected President of the Republic next year if he decides to go for it, and who, in the aforementioned IPSOS ranking, is in 1st place, with a 52% favorable/32% unfavorable rating.

Another note: Time’s profile of Marine LP was written by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian far-right nutcase I had forgotten all about, who informs the reader that she “has a shot at the presidency”…

If you’re wondering why I don’t read Time magazine anymore, there you have it.

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The workers at a British-owned enterprise in France have been on strike this week, the Daily Telegraph reports, because the management speaks only English (voici un reportage en français). The workers want a plant director who speaks French, with whom they can communicate. As the CGT union delegate put it, “I don’t think it’s up to us to make the effort to speak English. We’re French workers based in France.”

Duh. This would be justified even for the Paris office of a Fortune 500 company but the enterprise in question is in Saint-Marcellin-en-Forez, a village of 4000 inhabitants some 75 km SW of Lyon, in deepest France profonde. I doubt there are too many English-speakers down that way but even if there were, so what? The Telegraph’s nitwit reporter, though, seems to attribute such job actions to France’s “notoriously nationalistic workforce.” Gimme a frigging break! I’d like to see the “nationalistic” reaction of the personnel of a French-owned enterprise in some town in the East Midlands if they had to deal with a Francophone only management. All I can say is vive la grève!

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Michel Clamen, founder and director of the professional Master’s program in European Relations at the Catholic University of Paris—in which I’ve been teaching for the past ten years—has an interview (en français) on lobbying and corruption in Brussels, on the web site The Euros.eu.

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The Credit Rating Hoax

[update below]

William Greider in The Nation tells it like it is: “Standard & Poor’s, the self-righteous credit-rating agency, has a damn lot of nerve.” Krugman rubbishes the S&P “warning” too. Le Monde, which has been more inspired in the past, took it more seriously. 😦

UPDATE: On second thoughts, maybe the S&P warning wasn’t so off base after all… (April 24)

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Aluf Benn has an important piece in Haaretz on the persistence of emergency law in Israel, which has been in effect since the founding of the state in 1948. This is a scandal, to say the least. Israel may be a democracy but, like Turkey, it has its limits.

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Fethullah Gülen

I posted yesterday on the arrest of Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık and the trumped up Ergenekon conspiracy. Şık’s unpublished book, the copies of which the police have been trying to collect and destroy, is an exploration of the relationship between the AKP government and the Fethullah Gülen movement. TNR had a lengthy article last fall on Fethullah Gülen. It’s worth reading if one is interested in the political situation in Turkey.

Published on The New Republic (http://www.tnr.com)

The Global Imam
What does the leader of the world’s most influential Islamic movement really want? (more…)

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Claire Berlinski, an American journalist resident in Turkey (one of the few), has an article on the arrest of Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık, for his supposed involvement in the Ergenekon conspiracy, and the frantic effort of the police to track down and destroy copies of his new, but unpublished, book (despite the fact that it was circulating on the Internet).  Ergenekon, which is a manifestly trumped up affair—as Pinar Doğan and Dani Rodrik have convincingly argued here and here—, has provided the AKP government with the pretext to carry out a crackdown on the press that is unprecedented for a democracy (which is what Turkey is, malgré tout). Worrying what’s happening in that country.

Berlinski also had an interesting article last summer on “Weimar Istanbul: dread and exhilaration in a city on the verge of political catastrophe.” It’s worth the read.

On a tangentially related topic, I saw a charming, somewhat bittersweet Turkish film yesterday, ’10 to 11′ (’11’e 10 kala’ in Turkish; sortie en français sous le titre ‘Les Collections de Mithat Bey‘), which is set in contemporary Istanbul. This review gets it mostly right. It will no doubt not be playing at a cinema near you, but if by chance it does, I recommend it.

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Roger Cohen had a column in Sunday’s New York Times on Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom Cohen has “always had a soft spot,” so he informs the reader. This is the most laudatory commentary I’ve read on Sarko in quite a while. I thought about doing a post on it, as there is much in it to respond to, but decided to hold off. I have a lot to say about Sarkozy but there will be numerous other occasions to do so as we enter the campaign season here—the presidential election is exactly a year away—, so I’ll save it for later.

But a friend is insisting that I write about Cohen’s column. As he was the one who came up with the name of my blog, I thus owe him at least partial satisfaction, so will address two lines in the column. The first: Cohen asserts that “[Sarkozy] was the outsider from the wrong schools who believed in energy and talent and had the audacity to smash the taboo that said a French politician can’t love America and prosper.” There are three problems with this sentence. (a) Sarkozy, who has lived his entire life in Paris’ 17th & 8th arrondissements plus Neuilly-sur-Seine—les beaux quartiers, the toniest parts of the city and its environs—, hails from a bourgeois family (on his mother’s side; his father’s was aristocratic), and went to private schools, cannot, strictly speaking, be considered an outsider. Moreover, being a precocious 21-year old protégé of Jacques Chirac—who, at the time, was the top gun of a major political party and plotting his first run for the presidency—is not a mark of outsiderness. Nor is having been mayor of Neuilly for 24 years—beginning at age 27—, which is sort of like being Congressman from the New York City Silk Stocking District, or mayor of Beverly Hills. And then there’s Sarko’s older brother Guillaume, a longtime leading personality in the patronat (employers’ confederation). No outsider he. (b) By “the wrong schools” Cohen presumably means not ENA. So Sarko is not an énarque. He didn’t go to a grande école. Lots of top rank politicians didn’t. Graduates of the grandes écoles are certainly overrepresented in the upper reaches of the French political class but this has never been a prerequisite for entry into the said class. Sarkozy’s educational parcours is, in fact, perfectly respectable for a leading politician: a law degree from the University of Paris-X Nanterre—all sorts of prominent people went to Nanterre, including Sarko’s possible successor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn—and a stint at Sciences Po Paris, which is synonymous with elite when it comes to French higher education (okay, so Sarko didn’t get a degree from Sciences Po, as he flunked the English exam, mais peu importe). (c) On the taboo that “a French politician can’t love America and prosper,” oh come on! Jacques Chirac loved to tell stories about his year in America in the early ’50s, when he worked at Howard Johnson’s, had a girlfriend from South Carolina, acquired his lifelong love for cheeseburgers… Many, if not most, French politicians with presidential aspirations over the years have been fluent English speakers and know the United States well, and they haven’t hidden it (cf. John Kerry in 2004, fleeing French journalists and avoiding all questions about his French links or knowledge of the language). Sarkozy’s Americaphilia is well-known (though only in recent years) but he’s never dwelled on it; and, it should be noted, he doesn’t speak English (see above) and has hardly spent any time in the US. He is the most francocentric president we’ve had in the Fifth Republic (more so than even De Gaulle, who spoke fluent German and English, and knew the world outside France far better than Sarkozy does).

The second line in Cohen’s column I want to address is his conclusion: “This restless French leader is at his best with his back to the wall. He’s shown that. The same quality means it would be foolish to count him out next year.” Don’t count Sarko out in ’12, Cohen says. Perhaps.  Just about everyone in France these days is indeed counting Sarko out for next year, in view of his disastrous poll numbers. The polling agencies that track presidential popularity monthly—IFOP, IPSOS, TNS-Sofres, BVA—presently have Sarkozy’s approval/favorable ratings in the 23-32% range (the questions asked vary: job performance, satisfaction with him as president, confidence in his ability to solve the country’s problems). French polling agencies, unlike most of those in the US, further break down the numbers by intensity of feeling (tout à fait/plutôt: strong/soft). The strong support for Sarkozy is 3 to 4% in all the polls, whereas the strong disapproval—i.e. those who can’t stand  him—ranges from 32 to 48%. This is not only a huge imbalance but is unprecedented for a president. Breaking down by partisan affiliation, within his party’s base—the UMP—Sarkozy is at 67 to 78% approval, which is okay but not great. But expanded to the entire electorate of the right—including centrists (who in France vote for the right in national elections) and the Front National—, whose votes Sarko will need, overall approval ranges from a mere 54 to 61%. Over 80% of MoDem and FN sympathizers disapprove of Sarkozy’s performance. In short, Sarkozy has big problems with his own voters.

One cannot win an election with these poll ratings. By way of contrast, the last president seeking re-election whose poll numbers were below 50% a year before the vote was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1980 (45%), and we know what happened to him. Extending the comparison to the US, it has not been uncommon for presidents to find their poll numbers in the 40s eighteen months before the election (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, now Obama), but so long as they hold their base, they’re safe, or so it has turned out. The only US president who lost his base was Carter (in the low 50s among Democrats in 1979; Obama is presently at 80%). Sarkozy is thus deep in the danger zone and given the state of the French economy—which not a single economist predicts will witness a sudden spurt of growth in the coming months and with a concomitant fall in unemployment—, there is little prospect of his poll numbers rising significantly before the end of the year. If Sarko is still in the 20s or 30s come December, he’s toast in ’12.

Sarko could, of course, be the happy beneficiary of an electoral accident. Accidents have indeed happened in recent French political history. In France, such accidents are simply referred to as “le 21 avril”. Could such an accident happen again? The possibility is being raised by all sorts of people, particularly after last month’s cantonal elections. I say no, absolutely and categorically. I’ll come back to this at a later date.

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