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Saturday, July 30, 2011


A bitter mood prevailed on Capitol Hill as US lawmakers struggled on Saturday to find a compromise measure to lift the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt, as talks to avert a ruinous default went down to the wire.

A day after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to cut the deficit and raise the ceiling on government borrowing, the debt saga shifted to the Democratic-led Senate where lawmakers scrambled for a deal.

Senate Democrats pushed ahead with their own plan, but sought to attract bipartisan support by adding some elements of a proposal offered by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

But Senate Republicans appeared to have the votes to block that bill and the House quickly crushed the Democrats’ proposal before the Senate acted on it, rejecting the measure 246 to 173 in a fast-tracked vote set by the Republican leadership.

Back-channel talks held the best hope for a compromise.

President Barack Obama was to meet in the afternoon with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and the House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Mr. McConnell also wants to meet with the White House.

Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the government would be barred from further borrowing after Tuesday, according to the US Treasury, and could quickly run out of money to pay all its bills.

The world has watched with growing alarm as political gridlock in Washington has brought the world’s largest economy close to an unprecedented default, threatening to plunge financial markets and economies around the globe into turmoil.

Forty-three Senate Republicans signed a letter rejecting Mr. Reid’s plan, a sign the measure does not have the support needed to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle in the Senate.

“What will they vote for? Do they have any ideas? Let me know,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor.

Democrats hope to convince some Republicans who signed their letter to allow the bill to clear the hurdle, at which point they could change it, a Democratic aide said.

Mr. McConnell called on Reid to move up a vote on the Democratic plan that had been set for 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT) on Sunday so the two sides could begin talks with the White House.

“We can’t do it by ourselves, it has to have the only person in America who can sign something into law,” Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. Obama used his weekly radio and Internet address to urge lawmakers to strike a deal and head off what he has said would be an “inexcusable” default.

In a vote scheduled to send a message to Senate Democrats, the Republican-controlled House defeated a version of the Reid plan, which fell well short of the supermajority vote needed for quick passage.

The drawn-out standoff has put the United States at risk of losing its top-notch AAA credit rating. A ratings downgrade could prompt global investor flight from US bonds and the dollar, raising borrowing costs for Americans when the economy is already frail, growing at an anemic rate of 1.3 per cent in second quarter, according to government data.

US stocks endured their worst week in a year as the uncertainty made investors shy away from riskier assets and the dollar slumped to a record low against the safe-haven Swiss franc. Much worse could be in store if a US debt deal doesn’t appear to be on track by the time markets open on Monday.

Senate Democrats’ debt-limit proposal, which would cut deficits by $2.2 trillion over 10 years, was revised by Mr. Reid to incorporate parts of a “backup plan” first proposed by Mr. McConnell. As envisioned, President Obama would be given authority to raise the debt ceiling in three stages to cover US borrowing needs through the 2012 elections when he is running for a second term.

Senate Democrats and Republicans agree about the main contours of the deal. The main point of contention remains what sort of mechanism should be in place to ensure that Congress will agree to further budget savings after a special committee makes recommendations, an aide said.

Republicans want the enforcement mechanism to be another debt limit vote late this year or early next year, while Democrats have proposed automatic tax hikes and spending cuts.

Mr. Obama says any plan that would require another showdown over the debt limit in a few months would be unacceptable because it would lead to economic uncertainty, putting a damper on jobs and growth.

With Republicans pushing to have the White House join the talks, Vice President Joe Biden, who has a rapport with Mr. McConnell from his years in the Senate, could emerge as a key player in final negotiations.

Unless there is major progress toward a debt deal, the US Treasury could be forced on Sunday before Asian markets open to detail plans on which bills the government would pay if Tuesday’s deadline is missed. Analysts believe it will stop other government spending to ensure bondholders are paid to avert a wide-scale financial crisis.


Protesters on the streets of Israel: Bursting Netanyahu’s bubble?

More than 100,000 young Israelis, in every major city, took to the streets on Saturday night to protest the prohibitively high cost of living, especially the very high cost of housing. Last week, a tent city went up on Rothschild Boulevard—supposedly, the epicenter of the Tel Aviv bubble—and tens of thousands began marching in sympathy. A sense of grievance is spreading like last year’s fires in the Carmel forests.

Columnists and television pundits pronounce this the biggest domestic crisis the Netanyahu government has faced, or is likely to face. It is coming just as he is trying to rally Israelis en masse to resist a United Nations General Assembly vote to endorse a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders—a vote that will itself produce mass street demonstrations in occupied territory. (Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti has called Palestinians to the streets. Not to be outdone, President Abbas has too.)

The lingering question—which will determine the complexion of the Israeli protest, and perhaps the fate of Israel’s place in the region—is how much young people in the streets of Tel Aviv believe that the former problem, the difficulties of making ends meet, is a function of the Israeli government’s failure to address the latter problem, that is, failure to make peace with Palestine.

How much do Israel’s economic stresses, long incipient, but gushing up in response to housing costs, result from the kind of government and ideology Netanyahu administers and represents? Can this connection be popularly believed?

The question is particularly important because, for the first time in a long time, young people who would ordinarily vote for the parties of the right—lower middle class scions of Moroccan immigrant families, Russian immigrants, and so forth—are marching with peacenik descendents of old Labor party families.

Something new is forming on Israel’s political landscape, and Israel’s left senses an opportunity. My young friends who started the “Solidarity” movement, protesting the dispossession of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, have thrown in with the housing protests. Are the goals really capable of being merged?

I believe the answer is yes, hell yes, but connecting the dots will not be simple. There is a communitarian tinge to the idea that the government has ignored the problems of the poor, the struggling middle class, the young, but such sentiments can quickly morph into fierce nationalist ideas—you know, that the government, unlike in old pioneering times, is letting down “amcha,” a colloquial way of saying the common people, but which literally means “your people.”

Menachem Begin built the Likud exploiting just such resentments. The suburb-settlements built for Jews in East Jerusalem—Neva Yaacov, Ramot, Gilo—were a sop to the poorest Jews who also happened to be Likud voters. A third of young Israeli children live under the poverty line, but almost half of those are Arabs. If Netanyahu offered to give big housing subsidies exclusively to young Jewish Israelis, say, as a reward for army service, would the new street coalition hold together?

The politics are hard to predict; it is not impossible that the Arab spring has inspired an Israeli summer. Haaretz has taken pains to report the Jews and Arabs are finally demonstrating together.

What seems easier to predict, in any case, is that without peace the economic strains on Israel will grow. Even more important, the wealth Israelis will forgo for not making peace, the opportunity cost, will increasingly be seen as enormous—if a leadership emerges to make the case.

Growing inequalities are not, in themselves, an indication of economic failure or are even preventable. The Israeli economy, driven as it is by high technology export businesses in software, value added components, advanced medical devices, etc., is bound to have a social profile more like Silicon Valley than a manufacturing city like Wolfsburg, Germany.

Technology start-ups that succeed in global markets make young entrepreneurs very rich very fast and out of all proportion to their neighbors. Two former students of mine, just over the past year, sold the little businesses they started for $20-30 million; I could work at a university for a lifetime and not accumulate their share of these “exits.”

The real question is whether, as the very rich get richer, the incomes of ordinary people are growing and their quality of life is improving. Are Israelis getting the kinds of services we need for the taxes we are paying? Can we afford essential things like higher education, medical care, and, yes, housing, from what we earn? Is there growth in sectors like construction and housing, tourism, food processing, retail—sectors in which people who are not high-tech entrepreneurs can start steady businesses that are not fancy shots at a global jackpot?

This is where Planet Netanyahu and the absence of peace bite together. The streets need to learn some hard truths:

* The settlement project was, and is, insufferably expensive. It is commonly understood that upward of $20 billion has been spent on settlement and infrastructure in occupied territory, not including the costs of securing them, which are continuing. Meanwhile, traffic in Tel Aviv and the coastal plain more generally has graduated from heavy to infuriating. Mass transit in major metropolitan areas is constantly postponed.

* The industries that Palestinians are going to focus on, and draw regional investment to, in the event of peace are precisely the ones Israeli “amcha” are most likely to benefit from—again, tourism, construction, retail, food processing. Israel and Palestine are one business ecosystem. Israel could generate another $8 billion in GDP just from doubling its number of tourists from 3 to 6 million a year. (Florence gets 12 million.)

* One sixth of the government budget goes to defense and is creeping up to incorporate new weapons systems. Social services are constantly being trimmed back. The ratio of national debt to GDP is stuck around 80 percent, not unmanageable as long as interest rates remain low and growth rates remain high, say, 4-5 percent year; but if Israel were to enter periods of lower growth, as now seems inevitable with global recession and political isolation, it will be impossible to outpace the social tensions we now see, or discontent in the Israeli Arab community.

* Educational infrastructure is in serious decline. High school classrooms average 30-40 students. University budgets have been slashed in recent years, causing the closing of departments, especially in the humanities, and Israeli scholars by the hundreds have sought jobs overseas. Yet the Netanyahu government is focusing on the nationalism of the curricula, indoctrination, not the expansion of the development of critical thinking.

* The health care system is in crisis because government subsidized hospitals and health maintenance organizations cannot pay doctors a living wage. The latter have been on strike for two months. When you figure hours worked, young doctors make less on average than babysitters. Yet Israeli medical training is world-class; medical tourism, especially from neighboring Arab countries and the Gulf, could rejuvenate the Israeli medical profession overnight.

* Participation in the Israeli workforce is among the lowest of OECD countries, perhaps 56 percent, as compared with 68 percent in Japan. This is largely because of the long-standing policy of the Israeli right to keep ultra orthodox yeshiva students on the dole.

* A major impediment to reducing the cost of land is the Israel Land Authority, a throwback to the old Zionist Jewish National Fund (whose lands are about a fifth of the ILA’s holdings). The ILA still controls roughly 90 percent of Israel’s land, which it manages, by mandate, for “the Jewish people.” Privatization and auctioning of land is inevitable if the cost of housing is to be brought down. But this would mean that Arab citizens would be able to gain much more land for development, anathema to the Israeli right.

* Ginning up the cost of flats themselves, especially in Tel Aviv’s and Jerusalem’s core, are absentee owners: wealthy Diaspora Jews who—excited by the Israeli right’s pandering, and encouraged to think of Israel as a kind of metaphysical theme park—drive out younger Israeli buyers and renters.

* Strong recent evidence suggests that all of these things together, added to the incessant war tension, have so degraded the quality of life in Israel that as many as a million Israeli Jews live abroad today, mainly in the US. Many of these people are highly educated and could be founding companies at home.

* Last, not at all least, is Netanyahu’s free-wheeling approach to market regulation—so much like that of American Republicans, and masked by ultra-nationalist distractions—which has led to the enormous concentration of ownership in Israel. The wealthiest 16 families own 20 percent of the top 500 companies: Ofer, Dankner, Arison, Tshuva. Some family-based conglomerates have been taking super-profits from, in effect, monopolies in banking, telecom, food retailing, media, and so forth. But they are also over-leveraged, and highly invested in real estate. Burst the housing bubble—by releasing a great deal more ILA land, for example—and some will be under water. The impact on Israel could be something like the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US.

Ideally, the demonstrators in the streets would know all these things. I suspect they know some of them and sense that, in any case, Netanyahu is not to be trusted.

One thing is certain: the idea that the young of Tel Aviv live in a bubble is finally, clearly nonsense. They have always been the Israelis with globalist commercial experiences and cosmopolitan instincts, a sense of how Israel fits into world. It is Netanyahu and the right, settlers and the orthodox and Russian Putinists, who have lived in a bubble. The streets of Tel Aviv may burst it before the streets of Ramallah plan to.

(Bernard Avishai is the author, most recently, of The Hebrew Republic. He writes for numerous magazines, including Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. He teaches business at the Hebrew University and blogs at TPM Café and Bernard Avishai Dot Com

Secularist Turkish generals ‘retire’ in rift with government of Islamic roots

Turkey said on Friday its top four military chiefs were all seeking retirement, in moves that appeared to reflect a deep rift between the secularist military and a government with roots in political Islam.

State-run Anatolian news agency said the head of the armed forces General Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the ground, naval and air forces were all stepping down, in what some Turkish media initially described as resignations.

The reason for the generals’ move was not immediately clear, but tensions between the military and the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan have run high in recent years.

The Supreme Military Council is due to hold a major twice-yearly meeting next week dealing with key appointments and President Abdullah Gul and Erdogan met General Kosaner on Friday to discuss the matter.

Following the announcement Mr. Erdogan met the head of Turkey’s gendarmerie paramilitary force, General Necdet Ozel, and they subsequently went separately to the presidential palace to meet President Abdullah Gul, fuelling speculation General Ozel may be appointed to replace General Kosaner.

By tradition, the head of the ground forces replaces the armed forces chief when he retires.

Friction between the government and military, traditionally guardians of the secular state, has been fueled by the continuing trial of 200 military officers accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

The “Sledgehammer” case, arising from an alleged coup plan presented at an army seminar in 2003, is one of several setting Turkey’s secularist establishment against Prime Minister Erdogan’s ruling AK party. Critics say AK has a secret Islamist agenda, an allegation it denies.

Some 165 military personnel, including more than 40 generals, are in custody in the coup plot trials, severely damaging the military’s operational ability.

Anatolian initially reported General Kosaner as resigning “as he saw it as necessary,” but subsequently withdrew the story, saying instead that he had sought retirement.

The Turkish lira weakened sharply on the news to 1.6964 against the dollar from an interbank close of 1.6805 on Friday.

The Supreme Military Council (YAS) meeting, set to start on Monday, could now be postponed. A row over appointments emerged ahead of last year’s YAS, but was resolved by delaying some appointments and the retirement of some senior officers.

A prosecutor investigating another alleged plot involving military officers on Friday sought the arrest of 22 people including the commander of the Aegean army, media reports said. It was not clear if the generals’ move was linked to this.

There was uncertainty in financial markets about what the decision by the generals meant, amid reports that their retirement was looming anyway, but Royal Bank of Scotland economist Timothy Ash said it appeared to be a “symbolic step.”

He linked it to the coup plot trials, including those targeting “Ergenekon,” an alleged secret network involved in anti-government conspiracies.

“It seems to relate to issue of military promotions stalled by legal action around Ergenekon,” Mr. Ash said.

“Hard to see the military winning this battle, given the ruling AK Party got 50 percent poll support in the June elections, and now dominates institutions of state,” he added.

The Turkish armed forces carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured the country’s first Islamist-led government out of power in 1997.

Such intervention is no longer regarded as feasible, as the power of the military has been curbed sharply under reforms carried out by Mr. Erdogan’s government with the aim of winning European Union membership.

General Kosaner, who took over as head of the armed forces in August 2010, is regarded as a hardline secularist, but he has kept a lower profile than previous chiefs of the general staff.

Alongside General Kosaner, the land forces head Erdal Ceylanoglu, air forces chief Hasan Aksay and navy commander Ugur Yigit have also sought retirement, the reports said.

The announcement comes amid an upsurge in violence in southeast Turkey in the military’s battle against separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas.


Libya rebels admit colleagues killed their star military leader

Libyan rebel leader Abdel Fattah Younis was killed and his body was dumped outside Benghazi by fellow rebels who were sent to summon him for questioning over alleged links to Col. Muammar Qaddafi, rebel finance minister Ali Tarhouni said.

Mr. Tarhouni said a rebel leader who was asked to fetch General Younis from the frontline near the oil town of Brega had been arrested and had confessed that his subordinates had carried out the killing. The men who fired the shots remained at large.

“It was not him. His lieutenants did it,” Mr. Tarhouni told reporters in the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi. The suspects were not identified.

Meanwhile, Colonel Qaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said that the assassination of General Younis was undertaken by Al Qaeda.

“By this act, Al-Qaeda wanted to mark out its presence and its influence in this region,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

Libya’s National Transitional Council said it formed a committee to probe the assassination of General Younis, chief of the rebel army fighting to oust Mr. Qaddafi.

“The NTC has appointed an investigative committee and we will publish all the facts of this investigation,” said Mr. Torhuni, who handles economic affairs.

He said General Younis’s bullet-ridden body and partly burned body was found overnight in a field of the suburbs of Benghazi but that the NTC had received news of the crime on Thursday when the head of the group behind the killing confessed.

General Younis quickly emerged as a powerful adviser to Colonel Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya for more than 40 decades with zero tolerance for any opposition, and became his interior minister.

A native of east Libya, he was a member of the Al Obeidi tribe, which has its stronghold in Tobruk.

In light of his knowledge of the region, Mr. Qaddafi deployed him to Benghazi, Libya’s second city, to end the revolt that erupted there in mid-February.

The citizens of the traditionally rebel city became the first to challenge the regime in Tripoli, seizing Benghazi’s main garrison to make up for their lack of weapons.

General Younis, sent to re-establish order, encountered a domino-like series of defections.

Unconfirmed witness accounts say that he contributed to the strategic garrison’s fall by guaranteeing an escape route to soldiers loyal to the regime.

He announced on February 22 that he too was joining the rebel ranks.

He affirmed his “total belief with regards to the sincerity of the (Libyan people’s) demands” and called on “the armed forces to respond also to the demands of the people.”

His defection, like that of Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a former justice minister who now heads the opposition National Transitional Committee, was one of the harshest blows to the Qaddafi regime.

General Younis devoted himself to arming and organizing rebels, the majority of them ragtag fighters without experience or discipline, and to coordinate the defection of regular army troops to add some “professionalism” to his ranks.

“He had the air of a cinema actor, sure of himself, well suited to his uniform,” an AFP photographer said of the grey-haired but still athletic general.

But his “conversion” was not welcomed everywhere with open arms, as some continued to look upon the former regime insider with real suspicion.

On March 19 he denied he had returned to Tripoli’s fold, as rumors had suggested at the time, and thanked NATO for its intervention that stopped an attack by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces on Benghazi in its tracks.

In April, however, he also showed no hesitation in criticizing the alliance.

He accused NATO of standing idly by and “letting the people of Misrata die every day” as loyalist troops shelled and besieged the city on the Mediterranean coast.”

“What is NATO doing?” he asked. “They are bombing here and there,” while the city’s residents are faced with “extermination.”

On the eve of his death, he was still leading rebel troops in the strategic oil city of Brega, which rebels took a few days earlier.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, Managing Editor of Al Arabiya English

Friday, July 29, 2011

The dangers of redefining democracy

We have creatively redefined national interest, representation, democracy and corruption to the benefit of vested interests.

If bribe-giving is legalised, some have suggested, the vexed problem of corruption facing the government would be less severe. Some powerful voices from within and outside the government have even argued for this. The argument is in line with the theoretical case that corruption and smuggling improve economic efficiency. Such redefining of words is not an isolated activity today.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indulged in it at a recent meeting with newspaper editors. On the Lokpal bill, he said he personally favoured the Prime Minister coming under its purview but added that his Cabinet colleagues were against it — prevarication at its best.

Dr. Singh has acted decisively on issues close to his heart like the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal, which he pushed through in spite of the threat to his government and disquiet among many. Clearly, for him, the Prime Minister coming within the Lokpal's purview is not of much importance. It is consistent with his view that corruption is not as endemic as is being made out by the media and the Opposition, and that it is largely their creation. He also pleaded for moderating the campaign against corruption on the plea that it is spoiling our international image.

His argument that decision-makers act ex-ante, in uncertainty and without full information, must be music to the ears of wrong-doers. He clarified that in hindsight, one can be wiser about the mistakes committed. The sub-text is that inappropriate decisions are not deliberate, but genuine errors of judgment — an alibi for corrupt elements.

As a general proposition, the argument can hardly be faulted. But is it also true in specific cases? In the 2G spectrum allocation case, the CBI, under the Supreme Court's directions, has unearthed blatant wrongdoing. Giving a very short notice to file bids and, that too, a few hours, for instance. Without advance knowledge, a bid could not have been filed. Why did some of the licences go to those who had no experience in the field? None of this had anything to do with uncertainty.

Dr. Singh also argued that he could not be expected to look into details pertaining to each Ministry and that he was not an expert on all matters. But he has a string of agencies and experts at his beck and call. Why was their advice not sought? Especially, when the wrongdoings pertaining to the 2G case were immediately pointed to in 2008? The implication is that the system failed. Is someone accountable for the failure? In the Commonwealth Games scam, there was blatant loot in contracts and purchase of exercise machines and toilet paper rolls. None of this had anything to do with uncertainty or ex-ante nature of decisions or lack of expertise. Has the Prime Minister shifted ground — from his ‘coalition compulsions' argument to giving technical explanations for his silence and inaction?

If Dr. Singh's line of argument is to be accepted, from now on, no one need take responsibility or be accountable as mistakes can be said to be unintended or due to a lack of expertise. Further, one ought not refer to widespread wrongdoing lest it spoil the international image. The Prime Minister, a clever academic, has distorted the meaning of words such as “accountability” and “corruption.”

Changing the meaning of words like “accountability” will damage the system. Rule of law, social justice, good governance and building a civilised society depend on it. Similarly, when terms like “democracy,” “people's representation” and “justice” lose much of their content, democratic institutions decline. Thus the nation needs an institution like Lokpal to bring about accountability.

The government has decided to aggressively stall a stricter Lokpal bill. To be fair, arguments for leaving the Prime Minister and the higher judiciary out of the Lokpal's purview have been advanced by other respected persons too. Their argument is that the inclusion of the Prime Minster and the judiciary will undermine their independent functioning and prevent them from taking tough decisions for fear of being incorrect and inviting challenges. Logically, then, they should not come under scrutiny even after they demit office because even that could deter them from taking decisions. In other words, no accountability should be demanded of the Prime Minister.

Further, it is argued that in a democracy, the Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament. So, any wrongdoing by him would automatically be checked by the Opposition (enforcing accountability). It is also stated that the Lokpal, an agency external to the parliamentary system, will undermine Parliament. It is also feared that frivolous charges could be brought against the Prime Minister, given the nature of fractious politics. Every time a charge is levelled, there would be a demand for the Prime Minister's resignation and she/he would be immobilised.

All this begs the question: why is there a strong demand for bringing the Prime Minister within the Lokpal's purview? Why has Parliament failed to make the Prime Minister accountable? In the last 40 years, many Prime Ministers have been suspected of wrongdoing. Same is the case with many Chief Ministers, Ministers, Chief Justices and the higher judiciary. The existing institutional structure has patently failed to make these high functionaries accountable.

Further, due to corruption, justice is either miscarried or delayed (barring a few high-profile cases). There is a widespread feeling of lack of social justice. The political leadership and the top judiciary are seen to have failed the people in spite of the checks and balances a democracy is supposed to provide. Their credibility has been eroded, leading to the demand that they be made accountable in newer ways — outside the present democratic framework.

In brief, ‘democracy' is being given as the reason for not bringing the nation's highest functionaries within the Lokpal's ambit. The counter-argument is: because ‘democracy' has been twisted out of shape, there is a need for newer ways to re-energise it by, say, an independent Lokpal. Of course, it goes without saying that even the Lokpal may eventually get subverted since there can neither be a magic wand nor a perfect law to deal with social problems.

It is also argued that NGOs and civil society groups are not people's representatives — at best, they represent small groups. The legislators, on the other hand, are people's representatives. This view also emerged in the all-party meeting on the Lokpal bill. While formally this is true, the reality is that ‘representation' has lost much of its meaning. Does anyone represent people's interests today? Members of civil society groups and NGOs who have stood for elections have mostly lost. So the politicians are right in saying they represent only small groups. But this is not the whole truth.

The way the government initially caved in to the demands of civil society groups suggests that it panicked because these groups captured the popular sentiment of that section — the middle class — which has provided the government its legitimacy. The media, by playing up the issue, aggravated matters.

The government's flip-flop on the issue in the last few months ought to clarify whose interest it serves — citizens, the elite or vested interests. While workers' movements (big and small) have been routinely ignored by the government or dealt with a heavy hand, it responded to the middle class protests. With a scam a week surfacing in the last few years, the illusion of the middle class that the government represents its interests stood shattered, which is why the government initially reacted the way it did. As soon as it devised ways of confusing the middle class, it backtracked.

Revelations in the phone hacking investigations in the U.K. have brought out the nexus among the power elite and the erosion of accountability in the mother of democracy. In India, we are way ahead and have creatively redefined national interest, representation, democracy and corruption to the benefit of the vested interests.

Arun Kumar-The Hindu

Mystery deepens over death of Libyan rebel military commander

The head of the Libyan rebel armed forces was shot and killed Thursday just before arriving for questioning by rebel authorities, their political leader said in a carefully worded statement to reporters that gave few details on who was behind the killing.

Adding to the confusion, the rebels had said hours earlier they had already detained the commander, Abdel-Fattah Younis, on suspicion his family might still have ties to the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, raising questions about whether he might have been assassinated by his own side.

Such a scenario would signal a troubling split within the rebel movement at a time when their forces have failed to make battlefield gains despite nearly four months of NATO airstrikes against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. It could also shake the confidence of the United States, Britain and several dozen other nations that have recognized the rebel council as Libya’s legitimate leaders.

Announcing the killing at a press conference where he did not take questions, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, called Younis “one of the heroes of the 17th of February revolution,” a name marking the date of early protests against Col. Qaddafi’s regime.

He said two of the commander’s aides, both colonels, were also killed in the attack by gunmen and that rebels had arrested the head of the group behind the attack. He did not say what he thought motivated the killers.

Younis was Col. Qaddafi’s interior minister before defecting to the rebels early in the uprising, which began in February. His abandoning of the Libyan leader raised Western hopes that the growing opposition could succeed in forcing out the country’s ruler of more than four decades.

Rebel forces, however, held mixed views of the man, with some praising him for defecting and others criticizing his long association with Col. Qaddafi.

Hours before the commander’s death was announced, rebel military spokesman Mohammed Al Rijali had said Younis was taken for interrogation from his operations room near the front line to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya.

Later, Mr. Abdul-Jalil presented a different scenario, saying Younis had been “summoned” for questioning on “a military matter,” but that he had not yet been questioned when he was killed.

He also called on all rebel forces to intensify their efforts to find the men’s bodies, but did not explain how the deaths were discovered.

Further complicating matters, another security officer, Fadlallah Haroun, told The Associated Press before Mr. Abdul-Jalil’s announcement that security had found three badly burned bodies. Two of them were dead and one was unconscious, Mr. Fadlallah said, adding that one was known to be Younis, though they didn’t know which one.

“We formed a fact-finding committee to go the scene because we found three bodies that were burned so badly we couldn’t tell from the faces who was who,” he said.

United States and British officials said they were unable to confirm details of the reports but were looking into them.

Mr. Abdul-Jalil never clearly said who he thought was behind the attack, but he called on rebel forces to ignore “these efforts by the Qaddafi regime to break our unity.”

He also issued a stiff warning about “armed criminal gangs” in rebel-held cities, saying they needed to join the fight against Col. Qaddafi or risk being arrested by security forces.

Since the uprising’s start, rebels have gained control of Libya’s east and pockets in the west.

In the western Nafusa mountain range southwest of the capital, Tripoli, hundreds of rebels launched a broad offensive against government forces Thursday, seizing three small towns and advancing on others to secure a major supply route near the Tunisian border, rebel spokesmen said.

Four rebel fighters were killed and several wounded while taking the small towns of Jawsh, Ghezaya and Takut, Abdel-Salam Othman said. He said rebels captured 18 government soldiers, as well as weapons and ammunition.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Anders Breivik & Europe's blind right eye

There are important lessons for India in the murderous violence in Norway: lessons it can ignore only at risk to its own survival.

In 2008, Hindutva leader B.L. Sharma ‘Prem' held a secret meeting with key members of a terrorist group responsible for a nationwide bombing campaign targeting Muslims. “It has been a year since I sent some three lakh letters, distributed 20,000 maps of Akhand Bharat but these Brahmins and Banias have not done anything and neither will they [do anything],” he is recorded to have said in documents obtained by prosecutors. “It is not that physical power is the only way to make a difference,” he concluded, “but to awaken people mentally, I believe that you have to set fire to society.”

Last week, Anders Behring Breivik, armed with assault weapons and an improvised explosive device fabricated from the chemicals he used to fertilize the farm that had made him a millionaire in his mid-20s, set out to put Norway on fire.

Even though a spatial universe separated the blonde, blue-eyed Mr. Breivik from the saffron-clad neo-Sikh Mr. Sharma, their ideas rested on much the same intellectual firmament.

In much media reportage, Mr. Breivik has been characterised as a deranged loner: a Muslim-hating Christian fanatic whose ideas and actions placed him outside of society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Breivik's mode of praxis was, in fact, entirely consistent with the periodic acts of mass violence European fascists have carried out since World War II. More important, Mr. Breivik's ideas, like those of Mr. Sharma, were firmly rooted in mainstream right-wing discourse.

Fascist terror

In the autumn of 1980, a wave of right-wing terrorist attacks tore through Europe. In August that year, 84 people were killed and 180 injured when a bomb ripped through the Bologna railway station. Eleven people were killed when the famous Munich Oktoberfest was targeted on September 26; four persons died when a bomb went off in front of a synagogue on the Rue Copernic in Paris on October 2.

Little attention, the scholar Bruce Hoffman noted in a 1984 paper, had been paid to right-wing terrorists by Europe's police forces. Their eyes, firmly focussed on left-wing organisations, had characterised the right “as ‘kooks', ‘clowns', ‘little Fuhrers', and, with regard to their young, ‘political punk rockers'.” Less than four months before the Oktoberfest bombing, Dr. Hoffman wrote, an official German Interior Ministry publication dismissed the threat from neo-Nazi groups, saying they were “most armed with self-made bats and chains.”

Earlier this year, the analysts who had authored the European Police organisation Europol's Terrorism Situation Report made much the same mistake as they had before the 1984 bombings. Lack of cohesion and public threat, they claimed, “went a long way towards accounting for the diminished impact of right-wing terrorism and extremism in the European Union.”

Zero terrorist attacks might have been a persuasive empirical argument — if it was not for the fact that no EU member-state, bar Hungary, actually records acts of right-wing terrorism using those terms.

Europol's 2010 report, in fact, presented a considerably less sanguine assessment of the situation. Noting the 2008 and 2009 arrests of British fascists for possession of explosives and toxins, the report flagged the danger from “individuals motivated by extreme right-wing views who act alone.”

The report also pointed to the heating-up of a climate of hatred: large attendances at white-supremacist rock concerts, the growing muscle of fascist groups like Blood and Honour and the English Defence League, fire-bomb attacks on members of the Roma minority in several countries, and military training to the cadre.

Yet, the authors of the 2011 Europol report saw little reason for alarm. In a thoughtful 2008 report, a consortium of Dutch organisations noted that “right-wing terrorism is not always labelled as such.” Because “right-wing movements use the local traditions, values, and characteristics to define their own identity,” the report argued, “many non-rightist citizens recognize and even sympathize with some of the organization's political opinions”— a formulation which will be familiar to Indians, where communal violence is almost never referred to as a form of mass terrorism.

Thomas Sheehan, who surveyed the Italian neo-fascist resurgence before the 1980 bombings, arrived at much the same conclusion decades ago. “In 1976 and again in 1978,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books, “judges in Rome, Turin and Milan fell over each other in their haste to absolve neo-fascists of crimes ranging from murdering a policeman to ‘reconstituting Fascism' [a crime under post-war Italian law]”.

“When it comes to fascist terrorism,” Mr. Sheehan wryly concluded, “Italian authorities seem to be a bit blind in the right eye.”

Political crisis

Europe's fascist parties have little electoral muscle today but reports suggest that a substantial renaissance is under way. The resurgence is linked to a larger political crisis. In 1995, commentator Ignacio Ramonet argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union had provoked a crisis for Europe's great parties of the right, as for its left. The right's failure to provide coherent answers to the crisis of identity provoked by a globalising world, and its support for a new economic order which engendered mass unemployment and growing income disparities, empowered neo-fascism.

“People feel,” Mr. Ramonet wrote in a commentary in the French newspaper, Le Monde, “that they have been abandoned by governments which they see as corrupt and in the hands of big business.”

In the mid-1990s, fascist groups reached an electoral peak: Jorg Haider's Liberals won 22 per cent of the vote in Austria; Carl Igar Hagen's Progress Party became the second-largest party in Norway; Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance claimed 15 per cent of the vote in Italy; while the Belgian Vlaams Blok gained 12.3 per cent in Flanders, Belgium. In France, the centrist Union for French Democracy was compelled to accept support from the National Front in five provinces.

Europe's mainstream right-wing leadership rapidly appropriated key elements of the fascist platform, and successfully whittled away at their electoral success: but ultimately failed to address the issues Mr. Ramonet had flagged.

Now, many are turning to new splinter groups, and online mobilisation. Mr. Brevik's comments on the website provide real insight into the frustration of the right's rank and file. His central target was what he characterised as “cultural-Marxism”: “an anti-European hate-ideology,” he wrote in September 2009, “whose purpose is to destroy European culture, identity and Christianity in general.”

For Mr. Breivik, cultural Marxism's central crime was to have de-masculinised European identity. In his view, “Muslim boys learn pride in their own religion, culture and cultural-conservative values at home, while Norwegian men have been feminized and taught excessive tolerance.”

He railed against the media's supposed blackout of the supposed “100 racial / jihadi murder of Norwegians in the last 15 years.” “Many young people are apathetic as a result,” Mr. Brevik observed, “others are very racist. They repay what they perceive as racism with racism.”

Mr. Breivik, his writings suggest, would have been reluctant to describe himself as a fascist — a common feature of European far-right discourse. He wrote: “I equate multiculturalism with the other hate-ideologies: Nazism (anti-Jewish), communism (anti-individualism) and Islam (anti-Kaffir).”

These ideas, it is important to note, were echoes of ideas in mainstream European neo-conservatism. In 1978, the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, famously referred to popular fears that Britain “might be swamped by people of a different culture.” In 1989, Ms Thatcher asserted that “human rights did not begin with the French Revolution.” Instead, they “really stem from a mixture of Judaism and Christianity”— in other words, faith, not reason.

In recent years, key European politicians have also used language not dissimilar to Mr Brevik. Last year, Angela Merkel asserted that multikulti, or multiculturalism, had failed. David Cameron, too, assailed “the doctrine of state multiculturalism,” which he said had “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives.” France's Nicolas Sarkozy was more blunt: “multiculturalism is a failure. The truth is that in our democracies, we cared too much about the identity of the migrant and not sufficiently about the identity of the country that welcomed him.”

Mr. Brevik's grievance, like Mr. Sharma's, was that these politicians were unwilling to act on their words — and that the people he claimed to love for cared too little to rebel.

The Norwegian terrorist's 1,518-page pseudonymous testament, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, promises his new “Knights Templar” order will “seize political and military control of Western European countries and implement a cultural conservative political agenda.” He threatens an apocalyptic war against “traitors” enabling a Muslim takeover of Europe: a war, he says, will claim up to “45,000 dead and 1 million wounded cultural Marxists/multiculturalists.”

For India, there are several important lessons. Like's Europe's mainstream right-wing parties, the BJP has condemned the terrorism of the right — but not the thought system which drives it. Its refusal to engage in serious introspection, or even to unequivocally condemn Hindutva violence, has been nothing short of disgraceful. Liberal parties, including the Congress, have been equally evasive in their critique of both Hindutva and Islamist terrorism.

Besieged as India is by multiple fundamentalisms, in the throes of a social crisis that runs far deeper than in Europe, with institutions far weaker, it must reflect carefully on Mr. Brevik's story — or run real risks to its survival.

Praveen Swami-The Hindu

Diplomacy: Qaddafi’s resilience has diluted Western ambitions for change in Libya

Military pressure alone may not end Libya’s war, but neither is diplomacy proving to be the fast track to peace that impatient Western powers had hoped.

Ineptly deployed, it may even put a brake on the deal-making a resolution will almost certainly require, analysts say.

Just how slippery the political track has become for the West emerged on Wednesday, when France, a leading nation in the coalition attacking Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s forces, said the Libyan leader could remain in the country if he relinquished power.

The idea floated by Foreign Minister Alain Juppé will be anathema to many in the rebel opposition who insist Colonel Qaddafi not only end his 41-year-old rule but also leave the country.

The notion also looks at odds with a Qaddafi arrest warrant issued by The Hague court for crimes against humanity allegedly committed by state forces against civilian demonstrators.

Perhaps most starkly of all, Mr. Juppé’s remark shows how far Colonel Qaddafi’s resilience has diluted Western ambitions five months after the start of an anti-government revolt and four months after NATO began air strikes.

Then, back on February 24, Mr. Juppe, echoing the aspirations of officials in many Western states, said: “I hope wholeheartedly Qaddafi is living his last moments as leader.”

The more modest the West’s expectations, the better the deal Colonel Qaddafi may eventually be able to strike.

Foreign powers are eager for a rapid end to hostilities, because they want the oil-exporting nation of 6 million to emerge as a stable democracy rather than fall prey to ethnic or tribal conflict, or become a haven for Islamist militants – both outcomes a prolonged conflict might produce.

But the remarks by Mr. Juppe, the first senior Western official to express the Qaddafi-can-stay option in such a direct manner, will “give great comfort” to the leader, said Jon Marks, a veteran Libya watcher and chairman of Cross Border Information, a UK-based consultancy.

It would encourage the Colonel in a belief that he can widen rifts within the international community by stringing out talks with Western powers on a potential exit strategy, he said.

Opposition activist and journalist Ashour Shamis said it was impossible to imagine Colonel Qaddafi, a proven survivor who ruled for years under sanctions, remaining in Libya in retirement “keeping quiet and not making trouble.”

“In his mind he is Libya and therefore has the natural right to intervene. So this idea of Qaddafi staying in the country undermines the whole project (or reaching a workable solution).”

“It will create more problems than it solves.”

Western officials have said they are receiving continual approaches by Libyan officials expressing contradictory messages on how to bring peace to the country. Some indicate a willingness to step down and help with transitional elections.

But on the record, Colonel Qaddafi appears defiant. Earlier this month he even threatened to take the war to Europe.

His foreign minister, Abdelati Obeidi, said on Wednesday that the government was not in any discussions about Colonel Qaddafi’s potential departure from power.

As a result of the mixed messages, no one appears sure whether Colonel Qaddafi intends to fight in hope of keeping his grip on the territory around Tripoli or seek an exit strategy that guarantees security for himself and his family.

Colonel Qaddafi is under huge pressure from dwindling fuel supplies and a broadening network of diplomatic acceptance of the rebels, notably Washington’s July 15 recognition of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council as Libya’s government.

“The colonel’s best hope of survival is for a large-scale fallout between NATO members and a scaling back or cessation of air strikes,” a briefing by risk analysis firm Maplecroft said.

“This, however, is unlikely to occur in the near term. As such, the noose continues to tighten around Qaddafi.”

But Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, said behind-the-scenes contacts had clearly not clinched agreement about Colonel Qaddafi’s evident desire to stay in Libya. “There’s no real indication that that difference has been bridged yet.”

Some analysts say Colonel Qaddafi is not likely to embrace the notion of asylum in a third country, even if the UN Security Council voted to give him immunity from prosecution.

Uppermost in the minds of Colonel Qaddafi’s aides, Miles said, was the case of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was arrested in March 2006 for crimes committed in Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.

Mr. Taylor was in exile in Nigeria from 2003 until March 2006, when he briefly disappeared before Nigerian police arrested him at a remote border post as he tried to flee into Cameroon.

“The version of the Charles Taylor story that seems to be believed in Libya is that he was given assurances of asylum by the Nigerians and they welshed on this and handed him over to the court,” Mr. Miles said.

“That must be in anyone’s mind if they are thinking in terms of asylum in Africa.”