Saturday, August 13, 2011

Khamenei Won't Support Assad To The End

Iran and Syria have long been allies, yet as if Khameni realises Assad's situation is not salvageable, he will abandon him

By Meir Javedanfar

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been a steadfast friend of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam/AP

For President Bashar al-Assad, the situation in Syria is becoming worse every day. In the middle of the biggest crisis his regime has faced, he has had one friend on whom he could rely: Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei has been Assad's steadfast friend, providing him with political as well as material support. But as Assad's position worsens, he will need to rely on Khamenei's regime more, especially since an increasing number of Assad's neighbours are turning against him.

First was Turkey, which used to be a close ally. Now, the Turkish government is putting pressure on Assad and warning him to stop killing demonstrators and to implement reforms as soon as possible. And then the Saudis joined in by telling Assad to stop "his killing machine" and withdrawing their ambassador. A number of other Gulf states followed suit.
Assad has good reason to rely on Khamenei. The two regimes have been allies for many years. They have common interests with regard to Israel, Palestine, and groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In fact Assad would be right to assume that the Iranian government owes his family. While most of the Middle East backed Iraq in its eight-year war against Iran, it was Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad who stood against the tide.

Despite the closeness between the two leaders and the regimes, Syria's president should be under no illusion: Ali Khamenei is his friend, but he will not sink with Assad's ship. The moment the Iranian leader realises that Assad's situation is not salvageable, he will leave him. This will most probably be done privately. In public, Khamenei and the rest of the Iranian regime will continue their support. They may even offer Bashar refuge in Iran. But, behind the scenes, it would be another story.
The reason is very simple: many have said that the Iranian regime is extremist. This is true. It is extremist about its own wellbeing. To Khamenei there is nothing more important and sacred than this. He is ready to sacrifice anything that would pose a risk to it – including Bashar al-Assad. And one day, if the political and economic costs of Iran's nuclear programme start threatening the regime's stability and interests, he would give that up too.

Khamenei will not commit political suicide by staying with Assad until the last moment. Doing so would be very damaging for the regime's interests. Iran is becoming more isolated every day. It does not need a new enemy in Damascus in the event of Assad's fall, especially when this could impact on its ability to supply weapons to Hezbollah through Syrian territory (not to mention relations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it conducts through its offices in Damascus). It could also lose access to its economic interests in Syria.
These interests are all important to Khamenei, and he will want to protect them. Therefore Assad should not be surprised if one day he finds that, while Iran supports him publicly, behind the scenes its leaders are anticipating his demise by cavorting with members of the Syrian opposition.

For now, we don't know if the Iranian government is doing this but the noted change in Iran's English-language government press – especially since the clashes started in Homs province – may indicate how things inside Iran's corridors of power are changing.
At an official level, the state-owned PressTV continues to support Assad's regime. PressTV has been full of reports about demonstrators being backed by foreign powers (Israel, the UK and the US are the usual suspects). However, after the clashes started in Homs, PressTV also started reporting Syrian forces firing on crowds, as well as quoting human rights activists who openly state that the Syrian army has been attacking civilians.

When the protests in Syria first broke out many Persian media outlets in Iran stayed mute on the demonstrations. However, these days they are not only reporting on them but many are openly critical of Assad – much more than the English-language government-owned press.
A good example appeared on 28 July in the Jomhouri Eslami newspaper, a publication which has been close to Khamenei over the years. In an article headed "Assad's salvation is in reforms and not in the barrel of the guns", it said:

"A question which Assad and his advisers have to answer is: how long can they continue with armed confrontation and violence? Can they use more violence than Gaddafi and bombard demonstrators like him? Did Gaddafi's use of violence return the people to their homes?"
The article went on to say that the Syrian army had killed hundreds in the cities of Dera'a and Homs. This is a far cry from the early days of the Syrian uprising when civilian casualties were ignored, while news agencies such as Mehr reported on "millions of demonstrators" supporting Assad.

According to Masoud Adrisi, Iran's former ambassador to Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has now changed his position and is asking Assad to respond to his population's demands. The change in tone of reports from Iran could indicate that Khamenei is following Nasrallah, albeit at a slower pace. Sometimes a teacher can learn from his student.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 13/08/2011
-Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran

The Immortality Of A Great, If Flawed, Historian

By Robert Fisk

Amin Maalouf: now one of the 'Immortals' of the Académie Française 
Amin Maalouf: now one of the 'Immortals' of the Académie Française (Getty Images)

How many of the Nato admirals fighting the beast of Tripoli realise the origin of their title?

"Admiral" comes from the French amiral, which comes from the Arabic amir al-bahr which means "Master of the Sea". Our own "First Sea Lord" captures the original rather well. Then there's the Spanish hero El Cid which comes from the Arabic el-sayed ("the Lord"). We eat lemon sorbet which comes from the Arabic charbat. We lie down on a mattress which originates with the Arabic matrah. And so on.
Amin Maalouf is promising an extensive study of etymology when, as a new member of the "Immortals" – he has just been elected to the Académie Française in Paris – he puts his Arab-European culture to good use at its Thursday meetings. If the French have banned the burka, they might as well know that matraque (truncheon) comes from the Arabic matraq. Maalouf is better known in France than Britain, although many will have admired his wonderful novels, among them The Rock of Tanios, a grim, painfully accurate account of sectarian life in Lebanon's Chouf mountains and colonial interference in the Levant.

However, I believe his finest work is The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, a non-fiction account of the first "war of civilisation" drawn mostly from Arab rather than European documents. It revealed how the starving knights of Christendom ate their dead Muslim victims near the Syrian city of Homs. Even Assad's lads haven't quite resorted to this.
Now Maalouf returns with more non-fiction, Disordered World, Setting a Course for the 21st Century, and I fear for his reputation. The New York Times puffed him as "the clear, calm, cogent and persuasive voice from the Arab world that the West has been waiting for". Well, not quite. Maalouf, a Maronite Christian who has spent the past 30 years in self-imposed exile in Paris, admits that "I am not a specialist on the Muslim world, still less an Islamic scholar".

Perhaps for this reason, his view of the Middle East-Western world is dizzying yet deeply flawed. When he says that "the end of the balance of terror has created a world obsessed with terror", I can only agree. Yet when he tells us that "rich or poor, arrogant or downtrodden, occupiers or occupied, they are – we are – all aboard the same fragile raft and we are all going down together", I can only say that this is nonsense.
The Palestinians who are occupied by the Israelis and the Israelis who are occupying the West Bank are not in the "same fragile raft". One lot have won (for now). The other lot have lost. The real question – in the case of Palestine – is whether the Israelis will stop stealing Palestinian land that does not belong to them, upon which they are building colonies for Israelis, and Israelis only, against all international law.

It is worth reflecting – as Maalouf does not – that back in 1983, he was part of a Lebanese delegation which visited Israel for Amin Gemayel, when the Lebanese president was going along with America's hopeless desire for an Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement. Maalouf inspected the damage caused by Palestinian Katyusha rockets to the Jewish town of Kiryat Shmona. I can see why he has buried himself in the idea of "both sides losing", but there is a moral, ethical side to this which seems to be missing from Maalouf's writing. In 1982, the Israelis in Lebanon had inflicted infinitely more suffering (17,500 dead, mostly civilians) than the Palestinians had caused in Israel.
When it comes to democracies, Maalouf tells us that he doesn't "know many which function better" than America's. Really? And when he asks himself whether "in the course of the past few decades have the Americans and Israelis not borne a more specific responsibility" for the world's decline, the answer "probably" is not good enough.

But he is a friendly soul. I met him many years ago, just after the publication of The Rock of Tanios, at a Maronite monastery high in the fog-covered early summer hills of the Metn, where monks offered the most devastating arak with breakfast. A slightly chubby, humorous man, Maalouf looked like what he was and is: a great author. As a political animal, however, he sometimes sounds like a boring prelate. "My profound [sic] conviction," he tells us, "is that too much weight is placed on the influence of religion on people, and too little on the influence of people on religion." This may impress "Immortals" but not, I suspect, us ordinary folk. But let's not be too hard on the great man.
"No serious observer," he writes, "who has combed through the accounts of meetings at which the decision to go to war [in Iraq in 2003] was taken has reported the slightest evidence to suggest the real motive was to install democracy in Iraq." Instead, the US created a system of political representation based on religious or ethnic origin. "That the great US democracy brought the Iraqi people this poisoned gift of sacrosanct communitarianism is a shame and an indignity."

And then the Maalouf "coup". He is astonished to find "the leader of the Western democracies wondering at the dawn of the 21st century if it might not be a good idea after all to support the emergence of democratic regimes in Egypt, Arabia, Pakistan... But this fine idea was soon forgotten... the country of Abraham Lincoln reached the conclusion that all this was much too risky... free elections would bring the most radical elements to power... Democracy would have to wait."
Let's hope the other "Immortals" listen to that.

This commentary was published in The Independent on 13/08/2011

A Post-American World Can Benefit Iraq And Iran

By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
The current crisis in Iraq contains all the factors shaping the new political realities in the region. After twice invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, conducting an ongoing Cold War against Iran and a war on terror that is losing traction in the mountainous labyrinth of the Hindu Kush along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the United States is finally realizing that the international system cannot be ruled by military might.
The cost of the unipolar moment that neoconservatives indulged in with such hedonistic violence has thrown the U.S. into economic crisis. The middle classes and especially the lower strata of society have paid with blood and sweat for the war on terror. The strategic gain has been nil.
In fact, in addition to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eclipsed American strategic options. There is no Saddam or Taliban any more that can be manipulated in order to check Iran and attack the country if necessary. And now Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are gone, too. Ultimately, the strategic blunder, the inhumanity of the U.S. occupation, changed the perception of the U.S. in the minds of a majority of Arabs and Muslims.
The blunder in Iraq also affected the domestic politics of the U.S. In many ways, it was the Iraq episode that paved the way for the Obama presidency. The anti-war vote for Obama was a major factor in his success in the 2008 elections. The second factor is intimately related to the emergence of a post-American order.
For over two decades, Saddam was very functional in containing revolutionary Iran. Lest we forget, President George H.W. Bush betrayed the Kurds and Shiites in their revolt against Saddam immediately after the first U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991, because he needed the Iraqi leader to check Iran and subdue Iraq’s Shiites who were seen as natural allies of Iran. A Shiite-led Iraq does not translate into subservience to Iran. Alliances are based on interest, not on ethnic or religious affiliation. The “Shiite factor” is a necessary, but not a sufficient, explanation for the emerging Iraqi-Iranian relationship.
Political elites in Iran have known this. They engineered institutional options at an early stage during Iran’s war with Iraq, in 1980-1988, for instance the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq under the leadership of the late Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim (now, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq). Iran was able to mobilize a vast network of religious foundations (bonyads), nongovernmental organizations, charities and family bonds from Tehran, Qom, Ahvaz and Mashhad in Iran to Baghdad, Karbala, Qazimiyya and Najaf in Iraq. This infrastructure is in many ways “organic.” It developed historically, at least since the Safavid dynasty, and was fortified in the 20th century by political alliances (for instance, with the Kurdish movements).
And then there are the clerical links. All major sources of emulation in Iran’s contemporary history have had some personal link to Najaf and Karbala, or both. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini studied in Najaf and he stayed there in exile. Khomeini was very close to Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr, who is currently studying in Qom. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iraqi marja al-taqlid (source of emulation, the highest clerical rank in Shiism) was born in Iran. In turn, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, a confidante of the current supreme leader of the Iran and the former judiciary minister of the country, was born in Iraq. So the Iranian-Iraqi narrative is intensely intermingled beyond mere sectarian dimensions.
The imperial power of the U.S. never translated into a Pax Americana for the people of western Asia as it did in post-war Europe. The U.S. did not forge a viable security architecture that would be inclusive and that it would enforce in the name of stability. The pro-Israel lobby and other right-wing constituencies ensure that U.S. foreign policies remain divisive. For the U.S., regional security interdependencies are problematic because they make it more difficult to divide and rule.
Conversely, for the people of the region, the Iranian-Iraqi relationship is only a good thing because it creates interdependencies that can translate into a viable regional security order, much in the same way as the Venezuelan-Cuban axis enforced the autonomy of Latin America. After all, it is primarily the people of the region who pay the price of war, not those outside it. Hopefully, the political elites in Iraq and Iran will rise to the occasion and contain the extremists in their ranks. The people on both sides of the Shatt al-Arab deserve peace and reconciliation. To that end, the post-American order is an opportunity.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 13/08/2011
-Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is an author whose newest book is “A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations.” This commentary first appeared at

People To Define Syria's Future

With the coming of Arab Spring, repressive governments in the region can no longer ravage their people at will
By Fawaz Turki
When the clueless Louis XVI, the French king who ruled over a system of absolute monarchy, received news of the assault on the Bastille in July 1789, he turned to Duke Francois de la Rochefoucault and asked, perhaps dismissively : "It's a revolt, is it not?" (C'est donc une revolte.)
Rochefoucault, a well-known Parisian salonniere and author of popular maxims, replied: "No, Sir, it's a revolution". (Non, Sire, c'est une revolution.)
There is no record of a rejoinder by the royal, but it is doubtful that King Louis would have conceived of the absurd notion that the sans-culottes, the urban lower classes ill-clad in their cheap pyjama pantalons, unable to afford the fashionable "culottes" (silk-knee breeches) worn by the French bourgeoisie, would represent a threat to his power, riff-raff destined to launch a revolution that celebrated freedom for the common man and that changed forever the face of European history.
As it was with King Louis then, so it is today with President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, who has convinced himself that the hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities across the country — ordinary men and women, folks often overlooked in traditional accounts of revolution — are not Syrian men and women experiencing an exhilarating surge of empowerment, but ‘armed gangs' on whom his soldiers and security forces should crack down mercilessly.
By all counts, more than 2,000 have been killed in the crackdown. Countless others have been incarcerated and tortured. Many have either ‘disappeared' or had their bodies dumped in the streets. And this includes the body of Sakher Hallak, a Syrian oncologist who had recently attended a medical conference in the US, where he also visited his brother, a naturalised American citizen and an opponent of the regime. Hallak disappeared upon return to his homeland. His mutilated body was later dumped in a village about 19km from Aleppo, the city in northern Syria where he had lived.
Had not Robert P. Casey Jr., Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Near Eastern Affairs, taken up his cause, Hallak would have been another statistic, another nameless, faceless victim of the ongoing attempt by the Syrian regime to crush dissent.
The bloodshed has, happily though belatedly, drawn the ire of several nations in the Middle East, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both power brokers in the region, and the chastisement of the Arab League, a pan-Arab institution that many American political commentators in recent weeks have taken to identifying as "cowardly", for hitherto not standing up to be seen, or speaking up to be heard.
Civilised discourse
The downfall of the Syrian regime may not be imminent, but it is certain. In any case, a return to the status quo ante is now no longer an option. Lesson learnt? Al Assad and his cohorts were mistaken in their belief that they could rule indefinitely over their people through the sustained exercise of coercion, terror and violence.
Syria's future, its future role in the Arab world and, in the wider world, its place in the global dialogue of cultures, should be defined by the Syrian people themselves, not by a clique, a handful of men seemingly answerable to no one.
The right of men and women to revolt against the denial of their human rights, including the right to the fruit of their labour and the right to freedom of expression and assembly, is sacrosanct in civilised discourse, civilised communities. Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, said it best. "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it", he asserted. "Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it".
If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, in the innocence of its teleological spirit, it is this: Gone forever are the days when repressive governments in the region could ravage their people without a peep from anyone.
In 1982, for example, President Hafez Al Assad, the incumbent's father, sent his soldiers, mounting tanks, to the city of Hama where they slaughtered well over 10,000 people — perhaps twice that many — then afterwards went about his normal business in the presidential palace in Damascus, as if all he had done was to spray the kitchen, ridding himself of a colony of roaches under the sink. And in June 1996, Muammar Gaddafi, in like manner, ordered his security forces to shoot and kill, over a period of three hours, roughly 1,100 recalcitrant inmates at the Abu Salem prison. This mass killing, like the one in Hama, was launched without either leader throwing a fitful glance over his shoulder. Without remorse. Without regret. Without even second thoughts about the action's inherent evil.
What kind of regime is it in Syria that sends its military and security forces to kill its own people, its very own people, in the streets of their very own cities? The image is unbearable, for it cuts deep into the grammar of our human perception of what is moral and what is not. It speaks of diminishing reserves of feeling and human response in the social order.
Street idiom aside, what goes around, in the end, comes around -- to bite you in the back, just as you yourself had once bitten. And, yes, since you asked, Louis XVI, symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Regime, found his neck, in 1793, at the other end of a descending guillotine blade. His beheading was preceded by a drum roll.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 13/08/2011
-Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile

Islamic Evolution

How Turkey taught the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to reconcile faith and democracy.
By Piotr Zalewski
Fawaz Zakri was 17 years old when his father told him to pack his bags, bid goodbye to his family, and cross the border into Turkey. The year was 1981, and the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where Zakri had grown up, was in the throes of a violent anti-government insurgency led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Zakri's father feared that his son's links with the Brothers would be enough to land him in jail, or worse. "I was a sympathizer," Zakri qualifies, "but not a member." Two years earlier, the Brotherhood had attacked a local military academy, killing dozens of cadets in an assault that marked the beginning of an all-out war between the Sunni Islamist group and the Alawite regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Protests, assassinations, and terrorist attacks, many carried out by the Brotherhood, had since become routine. Syrian troops and security forces responded with a ruthless crackdown, at times employing artillery fire against neighborhoods in Aleppo. The war culminated in 1982, when, in the wake of another Brotherhood uprising, Assad's troops killed tens of thousands of people in the city of Hama. The massacre crushed the Brotherhood's Syrian wing, and its surviving activists scattered -- many eventually settling across the border in Turkey.
Zakri's escape placed him beyond not only the reach of the Syrian regime, but also the militant ideology of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood of that era. Thirty years removed from his flight, Zakri is a graduate of one of Turkey's finest universities, an iPhone-toting businessman with a trade in grains and heavy machinery, and a fluent English speaker. He is also, at least to some extent, a changed man -- a committed Islamist, to be sure, but one of a different hue. "After we came to Turkey," he says, "people like me, we faced a revolution in our thoughts."
While many in Europe and the United States fear that Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has introduced a dangerous Islamist influence into the country's traditionally secular and Western-oriented stance, religious groups struggling to overthrow stagnant autocracies across the Arab world take a different lesson from the party's success. Particularly in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on a domestic uprising has become increasingly brutal during the holy month of Ramadan, pious activists have looked to Turkey as a model for reconciling their faith with the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring.
But Turkish politicians steer clear of the "M" word. "We do not use that language because we do not want to patronize anyone," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief foreign-policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, told me this spring. "We do not want to impose our experience on others." There is more to this, of course. The days when the Arab world suspected Turkey of being a U.S. "Trojan horse" in the Middle East might be long gone, but the Turks, who remember President George W. Bush's repeated references to the "Turkish model," remain wary of being seen as doing the West's bidding.
As Syrians continue to risk their lives to call for an end to the Assad regime, however, the impact of the Turkish experience on the Brotherhood's political evolution is coming into clearer focus. In 2002, under the leadership of Ali al-Bayanouni, the Brotherhood publicly disavowed violence and embraced parliamentary democracy. In the years that followed, it called for free elections in Syria and announced its support for women's rights. This April, during the early days of the Syrian uprising, Brotherhood leaders held a news conference in Istanbul in which they denounced the Assad regime. And then in June, at a Syrian opposition conference held in the Turkish city of Antalya, Brotherhood members put their signatures on a declaration that called for "the freedom of belief, expression and practice of religion, under a civil state."
Bayanouni, who headed the group from 1996 to 2010, continues to strike notes that place him more in line with today's pious Turkish politicians than the hard-edged Brotherhood leaders of days past. "Firstly, we believe that the state in Islam is a civil state, not a state ruled by any religious leaders or clerics," he told me, speaking from London. "Secondly, we cannot impose any particular way of dressing on citizens.... We do call for and encourage [women] to wear the hijab and to follow Islamic behavior and action, but individuals must be free to choose what they want."
Although the Brotherhood isn't new to parliamentary democracy, said Bayanouni, citing the group's participation in Syria's 1961 elections, the AKP has provided it with a blueprint for reform. "The AKP is neutral in the area of religion -- neither does it impose religion upon Turkish citizens nor does it seek to fight religion," Bayanouni noted, "and for this reason we find [it] to be an excellent model."
Erdogan's critics would shudder at the thought of his government being upheld as a model for liberal reform. Concerns about creeping authoritarianism in Turkey are on the rise: The 2010 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 138 out of 178 countries, dropping it almost 40 notches from 2007. A high-profile investigation into an alleged coup has led to the arrest of several prominent journalists, feeding fears that the government is using the judiciary to jail or silence its critics. Most recently, Turkey's top generals quit en masse, sparking fears of a confrontation between Erdogan and the strictly secular military establishment.
It is a matter of debate whether the Brotherhood's makeover reflects a genuine change of heart or an effort to strengthen its ties with the Turkish government -- one of the most critical international players in the effort to increase pressure on Assad -- and make the organization more presentable to the rest of the Syrian opposition. But at the very least, the rhetorical shift represents a triumph of pragmatism over Islamist ideology. "I think [the Brothers] themselves know that the very strong fundamentalist positions are impossible to apply these days in Syria," says Rime Allaf, a Syrian researcher at Chatham House. "Twenty or 30 years ago, they were a force that would have presented a lot of question marks for the rest of society." Today, however, "speaking as somebody who is secular ... I can give them the benefit of the doubt."
Turkey did not spark the Brotherhood's interest until the 2000s, with the rise of the AKP. The party was built on the ashes of the Islamist Welfare Party, which enjoyed its heyday in 1996, the year its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, rose to become prime minister in a coalition government. The fall from grace came quickly. Erbakan -- viewed as a challenge to the country's secular system and its pro-Western orientation -- was unseated by the army after only a year in power.
For Erbakan's protégés, including Erdogan, the experience was as sobering as it was formative. Their new party, founded in 2001, ditched the Islamist rhetoric, promised a range of democratic reforms, and embraced the prospect of Turkey's accession to the European Union. The AKP swept to power a year after its birth. It has not lost a single election since.
The AKP's success in bridging the gap between Islamist principles and Western norms attracted the admiration of Brotherhood sympathizers such as Khaled Khoja, head of the Turkish chapter of the Damascus Declaration committee, an umbrella group of the Syrian opposition. Khoja spent two years in a Syrian jail between 1980 and 1982, he says, on account of his father's affiliation with the Brotherhood. Following his release, Khoja left Syria and arrived, via Libya, in Turkey. He was only 17 years old.
"[Abul Ala] Maududi, [Ruhollah] Khomeini, Sayyid Qutb," he says, listing the names of the Islamist firebrands from years past. "Their manner was not successful for Islamic communities, producing division and conflict. The Turkish manner has showed us a different [way]."
The debate on Islam in the West often centers on the question of whether the religion can be a vehicle for democracy. But for activists like Zakri, the most pressing question has been whether democracy could be a vehicle for Islam. Now, armed with a modified version of what constitutes an Islamic state, he believes the answer is yes.
"When we were young, we thought of an Islamic state as a state ruled by Islamic laws," he says. "Our conversion, in Turkey, was to see that Islamic states give the freedom to choose, provide justice, protect religion, human life, thought, dignity, and property."
Although the experience of living abroad, particularly in Turkey, has helped moderate the Syrian Brotherhood's Islamist agenda, it has also aggravated a generational conflict within the group. Younger activists such as Khoja refer to themselves as part of the Brotherhood's "second generation," a moniker that distinguishes them from the group's traditional leadership. Their grievances have less to do with the Brotherhood's agenda than with its style of governance. The Brotherhood's "autocratic, tribal structure," says Khoja, has become antiquated and ineffective. "The old generation is focused on leadership," he says. "We're focused on solutions."
Obeida Nahas, director of the London-based Levant Institute and a Brotherhood member, notes that members of the Brotherhood's old guard are heavily burdened by the experience of life under authoritarian rule in Syria. He maintains that leaders of the new generation, including himself, have different views that are informed by growing up in places like Europe or Turkey. "The ideological [component] in the new generation is very light," he says.
The Brotherhood in Syria was shattered after its confrontation with the Assad regime in the early 1980s, the group now a shadow of what it once was. Syria's uprising, however, has shown that dissent is still alive in the group's former strongholds: Hama, the Brotherhood's graveyard in the 1980s, has seen massive protests and a brutal government crackdown in recent weeks. The Turkish model may just provide the Brotherhood with a way to shake off the mistakes of its past, harness the momentum of the Arab Spring, and help a new generation of activists bring down Assad.
But first, activists like Nahas may need to break ranks with their own leaders, they say. The story of the AKP's rise -- Erdogan's break with Erbakan, his former mentor, and his subsequent embrace of a more inclusionary type of politics -- has not gone unnoticed among the Syrian Brotherhood's younger members. The AKP's success, says Nahas, "made people feel that they could do a revolution inside their organization and get somewhere." Groups like the Brotherhood were designed as secretive, underground organizations to escape the reach of hostile security forces. "This means that now, with the openness, they have to change."
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 11/08/2011
Piotr Zalewski is the Turkey correspondent for Polityka, Poland's bestselling newsmagazine. His work has also appeared in the National,, Insight Turkey, and Turkish Policy Quarterly

…And What About Iran?

By Walid Choucair
Many of the approaches to the evolving foreign stances on the dramatic and bloody chain of events in Syria are ignoring the extent to which the Iranian stance has an impact in Syria, and thus on any negotiations over a political settlement.
If the events in Syria over recent days, whether in terms of the regime's bloody campaign against a number of cities, which killed a number of people, or the hints that pressure by the Arabs, the Gulf, the west and Turkey, crowned by the visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday to Damascus, raises the possibility of arriving at a formula for a settlement to the Syrian crisis, then another question also arises, once again. What is Tehran's stance on the formula, if there is a chance for a settlement between the regime and its opponents? Where does Tehran stand on this possible development?
One should not ignore the notion that no foreign party, whether it sympathizes with the Syrian opposition or the regime, is able to control the dynamic of the struggle between the two sides. However, wagering on the idea that foreign pressure will lead to a brake on the regime's policy of "the security approach" in favor of a political option appears to be difficult if one ignores Tehran's role in seeing the Syrian regime lean one way or another.
Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan believes that what is taking place in Syria is a Turkish domestic matter, while Tehran has behaved as if the situation in Syria is an Iranian issue par excellence. Iran believes that what is taking place is a foreign conspiracy against Syria because of its stance in support of the resistance to Israel. It was natural for Iran to see the toppling of the Syrian regime under the weight of domestic or foreign pressure, or a change in the nature of this regime, as a loss of one of its regional "cards" that it had gathered in recent years; Iran will not give up on this regime easily.
The Iranian leadership dealt with the foreign efforts, especially by Turkey, during the visit on 10 July by Davutoglu to Tehran, based on the idea that "if we are forced to choose between Syria and Turkey, we choose Syria." The events of the last few weeks have not proven this option wrong. Syria has also moved toward the Iranian option, from the beginning, and not the Turkish option, which calls on the Syrian president to speed up reforms and carry out what he has promised.
Iran has played a role in offering security-related advice and has followed, from within Syria, the regime's plans to crack down on the Syrian intifada, as if it is an internal Iranian matter. Moreover, Iran has used its influence in Iraq to secure factors of economic support for the regime, by providing it with oil and consumer goods needed to confront the impact of western economic sanctions on liquidity in Syria. Iran has provided direct financial assistance to secure this liquidity. Many people believe that this is one of the reasons why Gulf countries have abandoned their silence on the developments in Syria; Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz sent a letter to Syria on 7 August, calling on the Syrian leadership to choose between "wisdom and halting the killing machine, or being dragged into confusion and loss." He lost hope in the possibility of decoupling the regime from Iran and its plans in the region, which include Gulf countries, naturally.
Such a reading is not dispelled by Syrian hints, made by those who speak for the regime and its allies in Lebanon, that warn of seeing Tehran use its many cards in a number of Arab countries, in a bid to confront the attempts to topple the Syrian regime. They hint that Tehran will mobilize opposition in Gulf regimes and have Hezbollah ratchet up its control over Lebanon, with the possibility of a military confrontation opened in the south, a new war launched against the American presence in Iraq, and a hard-line stance on negotiating over the continued presence of these troops in the country after the scheduled withdrawal at the end of the year.
This could turn Syria, more than any other time, into an Iranian card, because the future of its regime is linked to the plans of Tehran. Indeed, Tehran's role in Syria can only be enhanced by hearing the discussions of scenarios that are less costly than those required by a total confrontation in the region led by Iran to defend the Syrian regime, by Tehran's entering a settlement at its expense. These scenarios indicate that Iran might abandon the Syria card, in exchange for American acknowledgment of its total influence in Iraq in its ongoing under-the-table negotiations over this point. But the campaign by its allies, especially the movement of Muqtada Sadr, does not indicate that this trade-off has succeeded. The scenarios that hold that Tehran is trying to replace its reliance on the Syrian card with a reconciliation with Egypt, and that it began opening contacts with the Syrian opposition a considerable time ago, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, anticipating a change in regime, all indicate that Iran is a factor, negative or positive, in the current Syrian situation. Did the recent movement by Turkey, with Arab and international support, take this into consideration?
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 12/08/2011

Israel’s Middle-Class Revolt Hits Fresh Peak

By Tobias Buck in Tel Aviv

No public space in Israel quite matches the elegance and history of Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. Shaded by four rows of mature trees and dotted with small coffee bars, the avenue is flanked by a unique collection of early modernist buildings. The boulevard’s Zionist credentials are unsurpassed: it was at number 16 that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Israeli state in May 1948.
Since July 14, however, Israelis have flocked to Rothschild Boulevard for a different reason: to join the country’s new social protest movement. In less than four weeks, it has grown from a handful of tents erected by students at the street’s northern tip into the biggest show of civil discontent since the Lebanon war in the early 1980s.

The wave of protests reached a fresh peak on Saturday, when more than 250,000 Israelis joined demonstrations demanding relief for the country’s squeezed middle class. They called for affordable housing, lower prices, higher taxes on the rich and better childcare. Protest camps have sprung up across the country and are now home to more than 3,300 tents and thousands of activists. The biggest camp by far is on Rothschild Boulevard, now covered in tents from one end to the other.

Perhaps predictably, some have started referring to the movement as the “tentifada”. Others speak of Israel’s “summer of discontent” while placards proclaim “Yes, we tent”. For all the puns and jokey slogans, however, no one doubts the seriousness of the protesters, or the depth of their economic frustration and political grievance.

Adi Peled, a 30-year-old activist from Ness Ziona, moved to Rothschild Boulevard three days after the first tents went up. She now lives in tent number 13 and occasionally helps out at the communal food stall, which is constantly replenished by donations from supportive restaurant owners.

“I am a teacher but with my salary I cannot even finish the month without going into debt,” she says. “My friends and I have been talking about this for years. The system is not working for us. It is not just about housing but also about taxes, which are very high; it is about gasoline, which is very expensive and about the cost of food.”

Ms Peled’s complaints are echoed up and down the boulevard. “Our parents and grandparents used to live in a welfare state. They have pensions, they have everything. But they have crushed the welfare state,” says Yaniv Sharon, a 36-year-old protester. “People are now saying that they cannot even afford to bring a child into the world.”

Organisers say the protests have little to do with real poverty and nothing at all with the towering totem of Israeli politics – the conflict with the Palestinians. It is a middle-class revolt against an economic reality in which countless Israelis are struggling to make ends meet and some fear even worse. In the blunt words of Neria Greniman, a 24-year-old student activist from Jerusalem: “This is a protest of people who feel they are slowly moving from the middle class to the lower class.”

It is a fear that unites an unusually broad spectrum of Israeli society: students, pensioners, young parents, workers and teachers have all joined the cause.

The task of holding the alliance together is accomplished on Rothschild Boulevard every evening at 7.30pm. Activists and organisers meet to discuss their next steps. The message is then spread through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The students who pitched the first tents still play an important role, although the movement now relies heavily on bodies such as the National Union of Students, leftwing youth groups and the powerful Histadrut trade union.
There is, quite consciously, no single leader – and even prominent activists distinguish carefully between their personal opinions and the consensus position.

Most regard the lack of a unified leadership as a strength, along with the relaxed, cheerful atmosphere. Rothschild Boulevard has earnest debating circles but there is also a plunge pool and plenty of music.

Some placards boast social analysis running to thousands of words. Elsewhere, activists have simply scribbled one-liners on cardboard and hung them from the trees. One reads “Long live the revolution!”, another says “I want love – Call 050 668 935”. Another card sums up the festive spirit in just two words, “Simply happy”.

This commentary was published in The Financial Times on 12/08/2011

Where Are The Arabs?

By Osman Mirghani
Where are the Arabs? This is a question that we have heard repeatedly with regards to different events and occasions. This is an inquiry that often remains unanswered, failing to quench the thirst of those asking this question, or alleviate their suffering. During the disastrous events in Syria, and the regime’s suppression of its own people, we often heard demonstrators questioning the Arab absence. During the early days of the Libyan uprising, when Gaddafi’s army had already turned their weapons against the demonstrators, we saw the Libyan protesters repeatedly appeal for help on satellite television channels, saying “where are the Arabs? Where is the Arab League?” We heard this same question repeated during the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Yemeni revolutions, and what was meant in this regard was not the role of the Arab media or individual action by Arab states, but rather a comprehensive, concerted, and effective Arab role towards putting an end to the violations and suppression.
In Libya, of course, the Arab League moved to take action to issue a resolution that paved the way for the UN Security Council and NATO to intervene, opening the door for international support being provided to the Libyan rebels. However this action represented an exception in the Arab Spring, and was perhaps taken because Colonel Gaddafi never met anybody that he failed to provoke or turn into an enemy, and also perhaps because the international community wanted Arab cover before it decided to intervene against Gaddafi’s battalions. As for the situation in Egypt and Tunisia, the two revolutions had – relatively quickly – established themselves and settled the situation in their countries, causing people to forget about their initial questions regarding the Arab role. However these questions continue to be asked in Yemen, whose crisis is ongoing.
This is what is happening today in front of our own eyes, but if we were to look back into history we would see that this question about the absence of the Arab role has been asked on numerous occasions, particularly with regards to the Palestinian crisis. We have also seen this question asked during other bloody occurrences in the Arab world, from the Sudan to Lebanon, Algeria to the Comoros.
Today, the same question is being asked in Somalia, a war-torn country whose people are starving and suffering from a lack of food and medicine. Before anybody rushes to claim that the Arab are preoccupied with monitoring the revolutions and the faltering popular uprisings taking place in our region, we must recall that the crisis in Somalia – a country mired in chaos and war – has been ongoing for more than 20 years, during which the Arabs have been completely absent, except for issuing stilted statements and undertaking peripheral actions. Even if the news of revolutions is captivating a large part of the Arab attention at present, this cannot justify the absence of the Arab role, nor does it explain why only one single meeting of the Arab League was held – on Tuesday – to discuss ways of aiding the people of Somalia.
The UN has said that nearly three million Somalis require urgent humanitarian aid, while UNICEF has indicated that 1.25 million Somali children are under threat and need urgent aid to save them from starvation, malnutrition and disease. International reports indicate that more than 29,000 Somali children have died so far as a result of famine, and this figure will rise further if urgent international measures are not taken. Such figures are horrifying, particularly if we look at the bigger picture; the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] of the UN had warned of a deadly famine in the Horn of Africa as a result of what is considered the worst drought in decades. The FAO indicated that 12 million people are suffering from the consequences of this drought which extends from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya into parts of the Sudan, Djibouti, and Uganda.
However, the situation in Somalia is the worst owing to the war and the lack of a strong central government. Even prior to the drought, there were a number of logistical problems and a lack of foodstuffs in many areas of the country due to the civil war that caused more than 730,000 Somali citizens to flee the country for neighbouring states, particularly Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen. In addition to this, nearly 1.4 million Somali citizens have been displaced within Somalia itself, fleeing towards the capital Mogadishu and its surrounding area. The UN has declared five provinces of Somalia to be famine-stricken areas, including Mogadishu, whilst it has warned that six other areas are under threat. This is something that will further intensify the crisis in Somalia, unless the international community takes control of the situation.
The paradox is that a large part of the famine-stricken areas falls under the control of the extremist al-Shabab movement that claims to be fighting the central government in order to establish a just Somali state. Despite this claim, the al-Shabab movement is preoccupied with setting up [Islamic] court, killing anybody who dares to object to its rule, forcing people to grow their beards, shave their moustaches, banning music, and forcibly collecting zakat despite the people’s deplorable living conditions. The al-Shabab movement is not responsible for the drought, but there can be no doubt that its actions have contributed to the ensuing famine and disaster. The al-Shabab movement has forced millions of Somali citizens to flee their homes by preventing foreign relief organizations from operating in the areas of the control that they control under various pretexts including that these foreign relief organizations are made up of non-believers, [Christian] missionaries, or foreign spies. When the reports of a famine in the region first emerged, the al-Shabab movement emphatically denied that there was any famine, although it was later forced to retract this position after the state of affairs become undeniable, particularly after the entire world saw images and footage of the suffering. As a result of this, the al-Shabab movement allowed some relief organizations access into the areas of the country under their control in order to offer relief and distribute foodstuff. If only the al-Shabab movement had remained silent following this, but it did not and its spokesman has recently come out to claim that the UN has exaggerated the state of drought in southern Somalia with the aim of "politicizing" the issue.
The extremist stances taken by the al-Shabab movement reminds us that Somalia – with all features and dimension of its crisis – remains an Arab problem that must be dealt with, not ignored. At the present time, there is a dire need for humanitarian intervention in this Arab and Muslim country that is facing an impending disaster. It is not sufficient for the Arab support [of Somalia] to be confined to a few Arab countries offering limited initiatives. It is a stain on the honour of the Arab and Muslim world that we have not taken collective action in response to these images of [Somali] children starving to death, mothers unable to feed their own children, and men who do not know whether they will have food to break their fast [in Ramadan]. In the long-term, Somalia will require coordinated and continual political effort in order to emerge from this crisis, although this might be an unachievable dream when considering the Arab’s past record in handling major crises.
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 12/08/2011
-Osman Mirghani is Asharq Al-Awsat's Senior Editor-at-Large

Friday, August 12, 2011

Inequality And Its Discontents

The gap between the incomes of the rich and poor has grown. But those who blame inequality for Tunisia and Egypt's revolutions and the United States' economic woes are wrong. The real problem is that consumption has become more ostentatious, and, thanks to globalization, everyone -- from middle class westerners to Africans living on one dollar per day -- is able to compare him or herself to the richest of the rich

By Branko Milanovic
Milanovic Chart
Inequality in Tunisia, Egypt, and the United States 1975-2010
As income inequality increased in the past quarter century in most parts of the world, it was strangely absent from mainstream economic discussions and publications. One would be hard-pressed, for example, to find many macroeconomic models that incorporated income or wealth inequality. Even in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the 2007–2008 financial crisis, when income inequality returned to levels not seen since the Great Depression, it did not elicit much attention. Since then, however, the growing disparity in incomes between the rich and poor has taken a place at the top of the public agenda. From Tunisia to Egypt, from the United States to Great Britain, inequality is cited as a chief cause of revolution, economic disintegration, and unrest.
This feeling that the incomes of the rich and the poor have diverged in part reflects reality: between the 1980s and mid-2000s, income inequality rose significantly in countries as diverse as China, India, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality that runs from zero (everyone has the same income) to 100 (one person has the entire income of a country), has risen from around 35 to the low 40s in the United States, from 32 to 35 in India, from 30 to 37 in the United Kingdom, from less than 30 to 45 in both Russia and China, and from 22 to 29 in famously egalitarian Sweden. According to the OECD, during the same time frame, the Gini coefficient increased in 16 out of 20 rich countries. The situation was no different in the emerging market economies: in addition to in India and China, it rose in Indonesia, South Africa, and all the post-Communist countries.
For the poor, the gap has been palpable. In much of the world, the size of the economic pie has been shrinking, and the poor’s relative slice has been getting smaller. The poor’s actual income thus declined on two accounts. Despite large increase in global mean income between 1980 and 2005, excluding China, the number of people who live -- or, rather, barely subsist -- on an income below the absolute poverty line (1 dollar per day) remained constant, at 1.2 billion.
In many countries, however, it appears that perceptions of inequality outstripped even these large and very real increases. In three latest World Values Surveys (conducted in early 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s), when given the choice between more freedom and more equality, respondents around the world increasingly selected the second in later surveys. Even when controlling for the changing composition of countries over the past three decades, that result remains constant. Public perception of inequality was behind the curve for over two decades, it seems to have now leaped ahead of it.
Even in countries that have not shown any significant change in the reported gap between the rich and poor, moreover, citizens believe it has grown. This could be correct; measurement problems could have led to faulty data. Commonly used household surveys, from which data on inequality are extrapolated, might have become less reliable in capturing the incomes of the rich, for example. In greater numbers than before, they are thought to decline to participate in surveys or not truthfully report their incomes.
India has become something of a cause célèbre of this problem. Since the country’s economic reform in the early 1990s, its GDP per capita has risen by an average of almost five percent per year. But per capita consumption, as calculated from household surveys, grew only slightly, at one percent per year. Some of the discrepancy is due to the declining share of personal consumption in India’s GDP, but some is thought to have been caused by the low “capture” of the incomes of the rich. In other words, the mean income rose because the rich got richer but did not report it, while the poor and the middle class earned only moderately more income, which was well reported in the surveys, and did not consume significantly more.
Perhaps the rich are undersurveyed. Have our statistical tools thus become much less reliable guides both to income distribution and for conducting policy? Probably not. Wealthy people’s evasion has been a problem since household surveys were first conducted seriously more than half a century ago, and there is no reliable evidence that the problem has become systematically worse. Moreover, statistical instruments that, in principle, should be harder to falsify -- for example, individual IRS reports -- paint the same picture as household surveys. In the United States, both agree on the extent of rising inequality since the 1980s.
Exaggerated perceptions of wealth disparity do not lie in the arcana of survey techniques or the wiliness of the rich but in a combination of domestic and global factors. As an example, consider the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which were blamed on inequality. In fact, in neither country had economic growth slowed or inequality risen in recent years. In the last decade, Egypt’s per capita income grew at the respectable rate of 2.6 percent per year and Tunisia’s grew at 3.4 percent. The growth rate of both countries exceeded that of the eurozone (which was just under one percent) over the same period.
The fruits of this higher growth did not go exclusively to the rich. In Tunisia, inequality declined in the 1980s, increased in the 1990s, and has been constant since. In Egypt, it has been on the decline. Just before the revolutions, the level of inequality was high but not outrageous in both countries: in Tunisia, it was almost the same as in the United States, and in Egypt, it was lower. Broadly constant Gini coefficients meant that everyone’s income increased by about the same percentage -- the rising tide lifted all boats. This is not the situation typically associated with widespread disenchantment and imminent revolution
The origins of the anger that developed into the Arab Spring must be sought elsewhere -- in the feelings of injustice that the existing distribution of income had generated, and the perception that inequality was higher than it really was.
Feelings of injustice are driven by domestic factors. When combined with corruption and persistently high unemployment, inequality is transmuted into inequity in people’s minds. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the top of the income pyramid was composed of people who acquired their wealth through corruption. The jobless saw their problems as resulting directly from the way the rich amassed their fortunes. Indeed, fraudulent enrichment, unlike wealth gained from increased entrepreneurship, inventiveness, or harder work, is unproductive -- the result of a zero-sum game.
Meanwhile, exaggerated perceptions of inequality are driven by two global factors: the ethos of today’s capitalism and globalization. Success in today’s world is celebrated immoderately. The new capitalist society -- ushered in by the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1980s -- is winner-take-all. Worse, the winner wants everybody to know he is the winner. Extravagant consumption, displays of political power, and ostentatious living are used to validate success.
About a century ago, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes described the West’s pre–World War I capitalist society. It was the opposite of today’s:
Society was so framed as to throw a great part of the increased income into the control of the class least likely to consume it. The new rich of the nineteenth century were not brought up to large expenditures, and preferred the power which investment gave them to the pleasures of immediate consumption. In fact, it was precisely the inequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth and of capital … which distinguished that age from all others. Herein lay, in fact, the main justification of the Capitalist System. If the rich had spent their new wealth on their own enjoyments, the world would long ago have found such a régime intolerable.
Keynes thought that the long-term survival of capitalism depended on maintaining this particular structure, in which the rich are receptacles for savings, not engines for extra consumption. Asceticism was the key ingredient of Keynes’ “spirit of capitalism.” He would be perplexed by today’s version. On the one hand, communism and fascism no longer threaten its survival as they did during the inter-war period. But on the other, modern capitalism’s winner-take-all design is so far removed from industrial capitalism that Keynes had in mind that it is hard to believe that he would have been sanguine about its sustainability.
Today’s economic ethos is magnified by a media that focuses only on lifestyles at the top -- those of the richest, the most beautiful, the most successful. Of course, the media does not choose its stories arbitrarily; it is driven by public preferences as much as it shapes them. And people want to know about the top. The difference in skill between the world’s number one tennis player and its hundredth, for example, is minimal, but the difference in the endorsements they receive is huge. Today, it is no longer only the “physical” marginal product (the quality of one’s play) that determines income but also the image of being successful. No one wants to wear a shirt advertised by player number 78 in the rankings.
 Thanks to globalization, this ethos has become universal. With this decade’s spread of the Internet, cell phones, and social media, people everywhere have come to know about the lifestyles of the richest of the rich, both domestic and international, and to compare themselves to them. What Marshall McLuhan famously termed the “global village” has come to pass. Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Stefano Pettinato from United Nations Development Program, have shown that it is not only the global poor who increasingly feel left behind, but also what she termed “the frustrated achievers” -- those who have done well in real terms but feel deprived because others have done even better. According to Graham, the more the frustrated achievers knew about those who did better, the worse they felt about themselves.
China is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon today. While China’s overall living standards have improved massively in recent decades, World Values Survey data show an equally large decline in life satisfaction. Researchers credit this unhappiness to ballooning income differences, especially as ostentatious consumption has became more visible.
The current process of globalization is not much different from what happened in the 1700s and 1800s, when nation-states in Europe were born of disparate villages and townships that had previously been ignorant of the lifestyles of their neighbors. Political consolidation, improved transportation, and greater contact made the differences between people much more obvious. It was often unhappiness resulting from the knowledge of these differences that forced governments to try to reduce the gaps between classes and regions -- that is why French aristocrats lost all their feudal rights during the revolution, and Giuseppe Mazzini’s Italy tried to “Italianize” the Mezzogiorno.
Of course, the globalized world lacks a central authority that could do something about income gaps. Globalization has no “closure”: income differences are exposed and feelings of deprivation grow, but there is no outlet for them nor solution to them. So how should the world deal with the age of “want more”? Solving the problem through remedial action at the global level -- for example, transfers of wealth from the rich to the poor -- is inconceivable. Total official development aid to poor countries is less than three out of every thousand dollars the rich world earns. The current financial crisis is likely to depress that figure further. And such small amounts cannot make a serious dent in absolute poverty across the world, much less in feelings of deprivation.
Modern capitalism’s ethos will also not change overnight; anyway, there are no dour Calvinists ready to replace our happy, globe-trotting millionaires. To jettison globalization is not only impossible, it would be outright foolish. Globalization brings enormous economic and cultural benefits; the last twenty years have seen a jump in income that rivals the increase between 1914 and 1980. Equally foolish would be a Luddite reaction to new technologies or attempts to censor what people can write about themselves or read about the outside world.
The only solution to modern capitalism is modern capitalism, but with high -- very high -- and equitable growth, which is akin to a high tide that not only lifts all boats but also covers the rocks of corruption. The recipe for social instability is low growth, high inequality, high unemployment, and high corruption. Egypt and Tunisia scored high on the last two. Inequality, even if not excessive by world standards, was perceived as inequity, and growth was not a sufficient emollient for corruption.
Inequality has won a spot on the top of the world’s agenda because of its objective long-term increase, the ethos of the new rich, and the forces of globalization. The three factors are not independent. Globalization contributed to the increase in inequality. The ideology of those who became rich justified it. But their behavior made these inequalities more glaring and open to questioning. It ultimately undermined the economic order from which they benefited the most.
-This article was published in The Foreign Affairs on 12/08/2011
-BRANKO MILANOVIC is Lead Economist in the World Bank research group and a visiting professor at University of Maryland School of Public Policy