Archive for the ‘Political’ Category

Astonishing, Monumental, Earth-shattering – it takes the biggest words of our respective vocabularies to describe the events of the past few weeks as millions of people took to the streets across North Africa and the Middle-East in a collective demand for democracy of a proportion not seen since 1989. It’s been difficult to keep up with the constantly changing situation as each day seems to have brought about a new, unexpected development in a revolution that has caught most of us in the West completely by surprise: Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidene Ben Ali has resigned; Yemeni president Ali Abdulluh Saleh has promised not to run for re-election; Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ended a long-running state of emergency; King Abdullah of Jordan has sacked his cabinet and promised reforms.

And then, of course, there’s Egypt. For the past two weeks the entire world has been transfixed by events in the land of the Pyramids as its people took to the streets in immense numbers to protest the autocratic rule of its long-time president, Hosni Mubarak. We have seen young people, who have known no leader but Mubarak, come out and demand their democratic rights. This has caused a dilemma for the Obama administration: Mubarak has been supported over the past thirty years by various American governments, in spite of strong evidence of a host of human rights abuses, in order to maintain “stability” in the region. However, as the administration had openly supported the Tunisian revolution, it would have been incredibly hypocritical to turn around and deny the same rights to the people of Egypt. So initially, there was a period of fence-sitting, with Hilary Clinton re-affirming Egypt’s status as an ally, while avoiding criticism of the demonstrators and calling for engagement with their wishes. But as time has passed and the crackdown has become more aggressive, the US government has, in fairness, become more vocal in their calls for the protection of protesters and in demanding democratic reforms in public and possibly more in private. They seem ready to cut Hosni Mubarak loose and take a chance on the ability and desire of the Egyptian people to create a reasonable, democratic nation.

But of course the real heroes of this story are the brave Tahrir Square Revolutionaries and their comrades in Alexandria, Suez and all over Egypt. They have risked life and limb (and tragically many have paid the ultimate price) simply to claim the basic rights we in the West take for granted and sometimes even treat with contempt. There is, of course, a certain apprehension on this side of the world about what the future holds. Much of it is based on overblown prejudices about the Muslim world but some of it is understandable – it would be naive to deny the existence of elements within Egypt who virulently oppose the idea of a secular, democratic state and one of the major challenges for reformists will be to successfully make their case to those beyond the streets of Cairo. That said, it would be the ultimate cruelty to deny the young people of Egypt the right to determine their future after what they’ve been through to bring themselves to the brink of democracy and would probably set  back relations in the Middle-East by at least a generation. So Western nations should take the leap of faith and give full, unconditional backing to the democratic aspirations of the people of Egypt. They deserve it for a host of reasons but mostly because, in the face of stubborn and often violent opposition, they came out to demand their rights. They witnessed the tumultuous upheaval in Tunisia and they came out in their thousands; the internet was shut down and Mubarak offered meaningless “concessions” and they came out in their tens of thousands; they were attacked by stone-throwing, horse-riding, whip-wielding thugs and the press was attacked and they came out in their hundreds of thousands. This is their time to attain that most precious commodity…freedom.

Well it’s been a while, but something occurred this weekend where I live that compelled me back to my blog. If I tell you that I moved from London to Toronto a while back, I’m sure you’ll guess what I’m referring to (if the headline hasn’t given it away already). Firstly I want to talk about my own personal experience. I went to participate in the major rally and march from Queen’s Park (the provincial legislature) on Saturday. I’m not currently officially part of any political grouping or organisation, although I do lean left, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from previous posts. I arrived a little apprehensively on a wet day and fell in with the Amnesty International group – it seemed a safe place to be and I have been an Amnesty member previously.

After a number of speeches we headed off south along University Avenue, a vast mass of many thousands seeking to have our voices heard. The first moment of tension occurred as we passed the US consulate, which was barricaded off with crush barriers and surrounded by police in full riot gear, but I guess that was to be expected. Upon seeing a camera on the roof, one protestor jokingly said “smile for the CIA database”. At Queen Street, we started heading west, and were suddenly accompanied by a lone bagpiper. We passed police cordons blocking all southbound streets but moved on without incident. At one point two women sitting at their apartment windows starting banging frying pans in support, to great cheers.

We continued north on Spadina to College and then returned to Queen’s Park, at which point I left, happy that the march had passed off incident-free and that, at the very least, so many people had turned out in inclement weather in Canada, where people don’t protest like those in countries like France, to raise their voice against the impending economic attacks on those who didn’t cause the financial crisis, as deficit reduction becomes the name of the game. And then I got home and saw what had happened after I had left…I’m sure by now you have all viewed the images of burning cars, broken windows, riot police, black-clad rioters and mass arrests as Toronto lost an element of its innocence. The finger-pointing will probably start immediately but to my mind there’s plenty of blame to go around…

Firstly to the “Anarchists” who just smash stuff up: STOP IT, JUST STOP IT!!! You are not expressing political outrage, you are just indulging vainglorious revolutionary fantasies and are not helping in the slightest. This was a chance for the good people of Canada to lay out their desires for a better world and maybe start to build something significant, even if we couldn’t get to the fence, and you ruined it as you always do. And by the way, you’re not anarchists – anarchism is a group of complicated theories of how to organise society’s resources. For you, it merely means smashing windows.

Next, to the rest of the protest movement – it’s time to cut these groups off completely – they harm your causes constantly. No longer should they be tacitly welcomed at protest marches – only those totally committed to peaceful means should be allowed.

It’s probably too early to comment on much of the incidents involving police actions but there are a couple of things I would like to say to Bill Blair and the boys in blue: firstly when you say that you want to facilitate the right of people to protest peacefully, you are being incredibly disingenuous. When you put up a huge security fence around an event and then keep protestors miles from it you render that protest utterly impotent. When you line the route with police in full riot gear, you intimidate away many.  And when you put a line of police at the point when the march turned onto Queen Street, you prevented the troublemakers from breaking away from the main march, a tactic that could have led to disaster. And at times, the assembled force has looked like it was getting ready for an invading army, not a rag-tag group of punks who, at worst, were going to smash a few windows…but hey, I guess you have to justify that Billion-dollar security budget.

To the media, I know you totally get off on the scenes of violence, but could you not have shown even a few decent shots of the vastness of the main march, rather than that burning police car from the umpteenth angle? FFS, we walked right outside CP24’s studios on Queen Street West – you didn’t even have to go anywhere-just stick a camera on the balcony. Although by the end of the weekend, poor Lisa LaFlamme looked so drained and frustrated (especially when her cameraman was arrested) that I thought she was ready to go all John Pilger (look him up) on us.

And finally to the World Leaders, for whose benefit this all unfolded, it would have been nice if you at least acknowledged our existence – maybe even explained why you are not going to implement the policies we called for…


20 years ago tomorrow, the world changed. It still moves me today to think back to the momentous events across Eastern Europe that brought about an end to the totalitarian Soviet communist regime. I was a 13 year-old boy living in Ireland at the time but the images I saw on television throughout the preceding months have left an indelible mark on my memory and my outlook on the world. I remember well the images of Solidarity members campaigning for the release of Lech Walesa, the joy of East Germans crossing the border via train from Hungary to Austria, the vast masses of humanity demonstrating peacefully night after night in Prague, Budapest, Leipzig and all over the Eastern Bloc, culminating, of course, in the fall of the Berlin Wall on that glorious night when, after a series of confused diktats laid out by a battered government in the vain hope of turning back the flow of history, the city’s citizens walked freely through their own city and danced on that monumental symbol of division and oppression in a stunning expression of freedom.

At that moment, all our destinies took a change for the better. Throughout the Cold War people lived under the shadow of possible nuclear holocaust and while these concerns had eased throughout the 1980s as Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated various arms treaties, the breach of the Wall signalled the end of this threat. But the greatest aspect of this revolution was that, in many countries, change arrived without the firing of a single shot, another ringing endorsement for the principles of non-violent protest pioneered by the followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It showed that when a critical mass of opposition to an oppressive regime is reached, it will inevitably fall without a need for bloodshed.

This gives hope to those who continue to yearn for freedom, for instance in Iran reformers can take heart that, while the Mullahs have managed to cling on to power with their machinations, their days are numbered and eventually freedom will come. It also sets a great example for those who are tempted to follow the dark path of terrorism to further their goals, showing them that there is another way to improve their lot.

I wanted to include one video to illustrate what happened, but there are so many amazing images that I have included four: the first is an ABC synopsis of the events of that amazing year; the second is a moving documentary by Berliner Carsten Cumbrowski, which also captures the confusion caused by the misinterpretations of the government’s orders; the last two videos from Spiegel TV will take you right down to street level for the moments before and after the world changed and shows the tension leading right up to the moments the guards gave in and the good-natured, yet absolute, resolve of the citizens that they would wait no longer. For those who are too young to remember these scenes please enjoy…this is what freedom means:

`My two dogs tied to a tree by a ten foot leash kept howling and whining for an hour till I let them off. Now they are lying quietly on the grass a few feet further from the tree and haven’t moved since I let them off. Freedom may be only an idea but it’s a matter of principle even to a dog.’ – Louis Dudek.

A momentous event has taken place in Iran over the weekend, which may lead to greater change than anyone had predicted (myself included). The unexpected “landslide victory” of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over reformist opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi has led to an outpouring of dissent of a magnitude I have not seen since 1989 in Eastern Europe and China and may have ramifications beyond the choice of Iranian president, possibly signalling the beginning of the end (or maybe even the end itself) of the Islamic Revolution. The people of Iran (particularly the young) are demanding true freedom and from now on may no longer be appeased by being allowed to merely let their hair stick  out from under hijabs or get limited access to the internet. They want true control over their own destinies.

The problems for the regime started when Ahmadinejad was declared victor with a massive 62.63% of the vote, when what limited indicators were available pointed to a close contest and possibly a clear victory for Mousavi. In response hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters in Tehran and other cities around Iran came out on the streets and have stayed there. Initially it may have been possible to dismiss the opposition as Tehrani elites, who were acting like New York liberals who didn’t know anyone who voted for George W Bush. However, information has dripped out that backed up their claims: there was a record turnout, which normally is an indicator of strong support for reformist candidates; Ahmadinejad won handily in Mousavi’s home town; the result was announced before polls had closed; and possibly most damningly, there have been claims leaking from the Interior Ministry that the polls were, indeed fixed.

And so people went out and protested. The situation is constantly changing and the Government seems to have been caught off guard and doesn’t seem to know how to respond. It has promised a partial recount, called for unity, attacked the protesters as traitors but doesn’t seem capable of stopping them. It shut down internet access, imposed stringent rules on foreign reporters but (quite hilariously) could not stop Twitter-apparently they called Twitter to ask them to block Iranian access, but apparently those thirty geeks in California were busy playing Halo. And now, amazingly, Twitter has become the voice of the Revolution. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the moment in 1989 when the East German government got its messages mixed up about how much freedom of movement to allow its citizens, leading to a Berlin Wall border guard simply opening up his checkpoint.

Tragically, several people have been killed (and I hope, beyond hope that the bloodshed stops soon)  but this has failed to deter masses of people from gathering for what I consider to be one of the most moving of reasons – to demand their freedom. Often protests such as these fail to have a direct impact on the political process and this can lead to cynicism but sometimes a critical mass of support is reached which is irresistible and the spread of democracy makes another big leap forward and I believe that the protests of recent days are at or close to this point. So come on and join us, Iran, we’re waiting for you with open arms…

Seven months ago, we had the historic and exciting American Presidential Election; last week the slightly less exciting and historic European Parliamentary (yawn) Elections were held…I did vote, incidentally. And tomorrow another pivotal vote takes place…the vote to elect a president in Iran. As the media coverage of the run-up to the polls has been somewhat less than wall-to-wall here in the West, my opinions will be slightly less informed than those I expressed before the November vote in the US. However, this is the blogosphere so I’m going to throw in my two cents worth regardless, based on a few minutes of browsing the Press TV and Newsweek sites (and my hopes for the future of the world).

The Iranian Election seems to be, like the American election, an opportunity for the people of Iran to send out a clear message as to whether they wish to engage with the rest of the world or retreat to a state of fear and distrust. The incumbent President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been portrayed as some sort of bogeyman by the Western media. And whether or not this has been exaggerated, it’s often his own actions that have led to this view, with his call for the destruction of the State of Israel, his game-playing over the issue of the Iranian Nuclear Program and, most ridiculously of all, his claim that there are no gay people in Iran (yeah, and no Irish person has EVER had sex before marriage). In fact, with his bombastic, arrogant posturing, his jingoistic nationalism and a look that sometimes makes him appear out of his depth, he makes me think that he may be a distant cousin of George W Bush.

Ahmadinejad’s main opposition comes from Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has been presented as the main hope of the reformists. A Newsweek article about his candidacy (http://www.newsweek.com/id/199150) gives a more complex view of his political history and views. However, I feel that he does appear to be a more rational candidate and that a vote for him would be an indication by Iranians that they wish to respond positively to the election of Barack Obama and the diplomatic overtures he has made to the Muslim World in general, and Iran in particular. So that is why I hope that the people of Iran go out tomorrow and vote for Mir-Hossein Mousavi as their next President – of course I am assuming that the people of Iran still have access to WordPress (and if none of them read this post, I’m sure it’s only because WordPress has been cut off!)

Democracy is sometimes described as an inherently European and American ideal, that can’t work in places like the Middle East. This view is peddled mainly two groups – firstly by those who believe in inherent Western superiority over a supposedly inherently backwards East; secondly by those in the Mid-East who gain from maintaining the status quo of Religious Theocracy or Absolute Monarchy. However a brief look at history shows that the idea that Democracy is inherent to and only applicable to Europe and North America is a myth and this provides hope for the spread of Democracy to places where it doesn’t exist.

Firstly, Democracy in the Western World is still a relatively recent development. A little over twenty years ago, all of Eastern Europe was under the yoke of Totalitarian Communism, whereas since the fall of the Berlin Wall, eight of these countries have progressed enough to join the European Union, while another handful have functioning democracies, waiting to accede. In the early ’70s, Spain and Portugal were Fascist Dictatorships and of course the Fascism of Hitler and Mussolini removed democracy all over Europe in the 30s and 40s.

Even in countries who would be seen as having a long unbroken history of democracy, the Universal Suffrage we take for granted nowadays only came in gradually: Universal Male Suffrage only occurred widely in the late nineteenth century; Female Suffrage followed in first half of the twentieth; and of course African-American Suffrage was shamefully delayed until 1964.

And as regards the belief that Democracy is solely a European or American construct, this can be dismissed simply by answering the question: which country is the largest democracy in the world? The answer is, of course, India. And there are numerous other non-Western countries with solid democracies – Japan and South Korea to name two. South America has made a reasonably successful transition from the Military Juntas of the seventies to multi-party elections. Africa’s experience has been more difficult, yet even here there is hope, notably in Liberia where the inspirational Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has overseen her country’s transition from war-torn nation to burgeoning democracy.

I believe that Democracy is a universal ideal, which should be spread across the globe. It gives people the right to choose their own destiny and the opportunity to dismiss leaders who let them down. I feel that we, who live in democratic countries, should support its spread. However, I would warn that the military imposition of “democracy” such as what happened in Iraq, where it is carried out for selfish geo-strategic reasons rather than genuine support for the spread of democratic values, can in the long-term lead to devastating consequences (even here I was moved and encouraged by the Iraqi people’s enthusiasm for voting). The movement towards democracy must originate within a country, if it is to take hold.

And so to today: the next significant battle for democracy is being waged in the Iranian presidential election taking place on June 12th, where the government has removed Facebook from the internet there, after reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi set up his own page there. So it’s now up to the people of Iran to send a message to their theocratic leaders that this is not acceptable. I hope that you, he good people of Iran (if any of you happen upon this blog, assuming WordPress hasn’t also been removed) to reciprocate America’s choice of a leader willing to talk by electing a president wishing to do likewise, so that the world can move well away from the brink of self-destruction.

P.S.: For anybody who thinks an Irishman living in the UK has no right to tell Iranians how to vote please read my earlier post: Why Election ’08 Matters to Non-Americans as my reasons are similar

Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison today for throwing his shoes at George W Bush on the 15th of December. This to my mind is a disgracefully harsh sentence. If Iraq wants to be seen as a mature democracy, this overreaction to a very mildly violent political protest is not going to help its cause. Protests in this vein happen regularly in democratic societies: in the 1970s Richard Nixon was egged in Ireland by an anti-war protestor; a few years back here in the UK,  John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, had an egg thrown at him by a farmer. His response? He punched the protestor and got into a scuffle. Prescott also got soaked by a jug of iced water thrown over him by a member of the band Chumbawumba, in support of striking Liverpool dockers, at the 1998 Brit Awards; only last week an environmental protestor threw green custard over Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, to express opposition to his support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Now I understand that it’s open to debate whether this type of action is effective or appropriate, however I cannot see of any argument that could justify a prison sentence of three years, in what is likely to be a very harsh environment, being doled out to a journalist, who had been a law-abiding citizen up to this point. He has even been a victim of kidnapping himself and family members were arrested under Saddam Hussein’s regime. His weapon of choice, his shoes, show that his primary intent was to deliver an Iraqi insult, not to seriously injure Bush. Even if he had connected, he would have done no more damage to Bush than the President had done to himself with a pretzel. Bush himself was able to joke about the “attack” in the immediate aftermath and we have all had a good laugh since.

But the joke is now over – al-Zaidi’s lawyer’s plan to appeal and I hope they succeed in getting his sentence reduced significantly. In truth the time he has already served has been too harsh. In genuinely free societies, which Bush has claimed Iraq is now, people must feel free to express political opinion in a sometimes fiery manner, without fearing disproportionate reprisals from the authorities. Otherwise the country starts to look more like a police state.

PS – do you know of an incident of something non-lethal being thrown at a politician? Leave a comment and we can build a dossier.