Yemen – Observations as the uprising unfolds

24th June: Saleh in his refusal to do the bidding of the GCC and the United States and instead gamble on challenging the uprising, very nearly paid with his life.
The assassination attempt illustrates the impasse that the uprising has reached. It has proved unable to unite all the opposing forces in Yemen society under one banner and programme. Now the initiative has passed to ex-Saleh allies and coup plotters within the Saleh camp.

In this respect, Saleh’s judgement of the opposition’s weakness was correct. The inability of the uprising the carry through the overthrow of Saleh has lead to tribal divisions coming to the fore. Stirring up sectarian divisions was a deliberate policy on the part of the Saleh camp, they are quite willing fight a civil war if that is what it takes to hold onto their power and privilege.

What makes this such a volatile and unpredictable situation is that the forces facing each other are unstable. The opposition is made up of an uneasy and fractured alliance of the youth, tribal leaders and defectors on the one side. On the other side are the Saleh forces who, having suffered splits and defections, still control the state apparatus.

In light of the doubtful return of Saleh, the most likely outcome is a deal stitched up between opposition tribal leaders and Saleh’s allies.

Such a deal though, would leave the mass of the protesters out in the cold with none of their demands satisfied. With the shortcomings of the protesters leadership there is a real danger that tribal division and sectarianism could fill the vacuum and take a hold in the protest movement.

With the pause in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the failure of the Libyan uprising and likely victory of Assad in Syria, it’s looking more probable that events in Yemen could take the course of civil war.

26th April: President Saleh of Yemen has found his position much more precarious than Assad’s in Syria. Suffering defections, the Yemen regime hasn’t remained as solid as that in Syria. With splits within his own ranks and the protests continuing unabated, Saleh has little room for manoeuvre. He has had to accept, in words at least, a proposal from the GCC to step down in thirty days, provided he’s given immunity for his crimes of course! The GCC has not acted out of concern at the loss of innocent lives, this is the same organisation that was invited into Bahrain to suppress protests there.

The motivation of the GCC, especially its principle member Saudi Arabia, is the twin fears of the contagion of protest and the breakup of Yemen into two unstable states. The opposition coalition groups have agreed to the GCC plan, including participation in a transitional government. This is in contradiction to the demand of the protesters that Saleh steps down immediately. The possibility of splits within the opposition would of course give Saleh a glimmer of hope, but only a glimmer.

With fewer cards to play than Assad, it does look probable that Saleh will be forced to step down eventually. Relief for his regime will be temporary though. Its structure will remain intact for a period, but it will be subject to the enormous pressures of the people on the one side and the regime’s beneficiaries on the other. In-spite of, or perhaps because of, the machinations of the west and the GCC, the result would still be instability. While events remain fluid, it’s not certain whether this instability would take the path of the fracturing of Yemen or a state structure so weakened that it would be virtually ineffectual. The Arab uprisings that have brought Yemen to this point still exercise a dominant influence on the Yemen protests. An upsurge in revolutionary action in Egypt for example, could still be powerful enough to completely alter the course of events in Yemen.

25th March: In Yemen, after weeks of protests the military has begun to split under the pressure. Tens of thousands have gathered in Change Square for the ‘Friday of Departure’ rally.

Free Bank Shares for all?

Nick Clegg, UK deputy Prime Minister, has caused a minor stir with his idea to give away shares of the nationalised banks to voters.

There has been some opposition saying that the banks should be sold off with the proceeds going to the government to help pay off the deficit.

This argument would mean that in essence, the banks, after sucking huge amounts of taxpayers money to prop them up, would be able to buy themselves back cheap. A sort of pawnbroking deal you can get with someone really bad at pawnbroking. To add insult to injury, the proceeds are then handed by the treasury straight over to the bondholders who are mostly, the banks! Genius plan if you’re a banker!

Others, feeling that there are those among voters who are ‘undeserving‘, propose that only tax payers should be given free shares.

There is however, one teeny weeny flaw in this plan to grab more shares for the ‘deserving‘. While it’s obvious that it’s income tax payers who are the intended beneficiaries, income tax is not ring fenced. It’s thrown into a great big pot along with all the other taxes such as VAT. Taxpayers in this case would include the ‘undeserving’ and, incidentally, also include any child that has ever bought an ice cream…

Nick Clegg’s asserts that his idea would democratise the banks with the participation of legions of small investors. Experience shows with previous privatisations that this would just end with the dictatorship of the institutional investor.

My preferred option? Tempting though the offer of free money is, the caveat is that we would only get above what the government paid for the shares originally anyway. So I’d prefer a more transparent and democratic solution. Sell off the gambling arms of the banks to any mug that’ll buy them at an over-inflated price. Consolidate the rest into one single bank, rationalising the product ranges to save the costs of duplication. The management would be made up of representatives of the bank’s employees, the government and representatives from interested consumer groups. Now that would be more like a true ‘Peoples Bank’.

Pundits Prescribe 10 Years of Pain for Greece

The Greek people have found themselves assailed from all sides to pay for a crisis of someone else’s making. They have protested in their hundreds of thousands against the austerity programme of cuts, mass redundancies and the fire sale of state assets, the proceeds of which would end up in the pockets of banks and bond holders.

A line-up of pundits and economists blithely playing the role of perverse doctors, declare that the Greeks will have to take ten years of pain to pay for the crisis. They point to the corrupt hiring practices for government posts, state ownership, tax avoidance as reasons for the Greek predicament.

What they don’t explain is, why in that case did the Celtic Tiger of Ireland collapse into near bankruptcy? Neither do they explain why the austerity demands would work for Greece whereas in Ireland, those policies have lead to a destruction of the growth that would have paid for its debts. They are strangely silent on the example of Ireland, which has done everything the ECB and the IMF demanded of it. In a sign that the Irish crisis is set to deepen, the Allied Irish Banks, one of the bailed out banks, has defaulted.

The Greek crisis is poised as a Mexican standoff between the Greek masses, the bond holders and banks, the CDS market, the IMF/ECB and their proxy, Greek PM George Papandreou.

George Papandreou has won his vote of confidence today and it is likely that he will be able to get a new austerity package through parliament. This will only be the first step, but as the Greek masses have made absolutely clear, the final say rests with them.

Syria – Observations as the uprising unfolds

13th June: What seemed to have been the most probable outcome of Assad restoring the regime’s control has been thrown into doubt by the astonishing bravery of the Syrian people.

The events of the past month shows just how easy it is for dictators to miscalculate. Driven by the belief of their own infallibility, they can become too confident in the tools and methods of repression and their own judgement. The regime is now reduced to vacillating between concessions and brutal attacks on the population.

Assad offered concessions including the lifting the state of emergency and an amnesty to those arrested up to 30th May.

When the masses rejected all offers with contempt, correctly seeing them as meaningless and as a play for time, Assad switched to extreme violence.

Assad’s regime used the horrific torture of a 13 year old boy  to send a warning to mothers to discourage their children from protesting. Arbitrary and random arrests and torture are employed against the population to create an atmosphere of terror.

Villages and towns that resist are subject to the wrath of army who attack with tanks and helicopters.

Assad’s regime has turned a blind eye to protests in the Golan Heights hoping they would distract attention away from the regime. After having complained that Syria was trying to direct the ire of protesters towards it by provoking a confrontation with Syrians on the Golan Heights, Israel responded by… killing protesters! Their reaction shows the stupidity that characterises the modern Israeli elite.

Their blunder with the Golan Heights protest is just a continuation of other blunders, such as the 2006 Lebanon War. This shows that Israel’s political elite have degenerated into the one trick pony of violent re-action. Worse still, some elements such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, wear their stupidity and brashness as a badge of honour.

The west has responded with its usual cynicism. They have limited themselves to calls to end the violence and racketing up sanctions against individuals of the regime. There is virtually no prospect of western military intervention on several grounds:

  • There is no desire from ordinary Syrians for intervention. In fact quite the opposite, they are openly hostile to the idea
  • Syria is far larger militarily than Libya, so far NATO have spent over three months trying to defeat the much more inferior and fragmented forces of Gaddafi
  • Syria, is strategically more important than Libya, it’s disintegration would risk infecting the whole region including the west’s allies
  • The west, unlike with Libya, would not get a free pass from Russia and China to intervene in Syria

The west, along with Israel, would undoubtedly welcome the fall of Assad but not at the price of instability in the region.

This explains the apparent contradiction in the west’s approach between Libya and Bahrain, Libya and Syria etc. For the west, the issue is not a moral one, but what is in their best material interest. When looked at from this view point, the policy of the west towards the Arab uprisings has been entirely consistent.

The tactics of the Syrian regime have descended to new brutal depths. The pro-democracy movement still suffers the flaws of fragmented leadership which gives an advantage to Assad’s campaign to remain in power. However, victory for the Syrian regime is still some way from being assured.

25th April: Bashir Assad in ordering the mass slaughter of protesters over the weekend has decided on a final showdown. Over a hundred have been killed in the last few days alone. All the major cities from Latakia, Baniyas, Aleppo, Homs to Damascus have been rocked by calls for the regime to fall. The epicentre of the protests Daraa, has received merciless treatment, snipers shooting at unarmed people to prevent them collecting and burying their dead. Today, 25th April, the Syrian Army has invaded cities and towns across Syria in a government crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.

The Syrian political and military elites, unlike their Libyan and Yemen counterparts, have suffered very little in terms of splits and defections and are still in a strong position. The protesters suffer the disadvantage of an organisation to co-ordinate nationally to counter the Assad strategy. It does seem likely that these two factors will help the Syrian authorities succeed in putting down the protests.

Though Bashir Assad may succeed in defeating the protest movement, the cost will be high. Assad’s regime will be weaker for its victory, its legitimacy will be undermined and its aura of invincibility shattered. Time may show that this is not the end of the uprising but just the first episode.

*Since the time of writing, activists have expressed doubts that Assad will be toppled, citing factors that appear to back up the analysis above.