2012 in review: The New Statesman . . . Abroad

From a portrait of Ai Weiwei to fascist rallies in Athens, the best foreign reporting, analysis and interviews of the year from the New Statesman.

Tidings of comfort and joy! With a bumper double issue of the magazine - guest-edited by Brian Cox and Robin Ince - sent to press, it's time to reflect on the year. 

Over the Christmas and New Year period, the NewStatesman.com team will be bringing you the 12 Days of Blog-mas, with links to some of the best content of 2012 that you might have missed the first time round. (Please forgive the fact that there are actually only 11 days of Blog-mas, and that they have started too early).

Today's theme is The New Statesman Abroad. Foreign reporting is - compared with domestic news and opinion - difficult, expensive and sometimes dangerous. It's also vital. 

In some of the places we've covered this year, the country's own media are unable to report honestly because of corruption or censorship. In others, the stories which usually reach Britain are simplistic and one-dimensional. Here are six stories which we hope get close to uncovering the truth about some fascinating parts of the world.

 

The cold choice - jobs or jihad

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the NS has commissioned Olivier Roy, a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence, to write a series of essays on the uprising. His first piece of 2012, The Cold Choice, looks at the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt in the wake of the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. 

His most recent piece for the NS, The Myth of the Islamist winter, was published this month.

Greece: The austerity laboratory

The NS assistant editor, Daniel Trilling, has written several longform pieces for the magazine this year after completing his book on the British National Party. In a recent dispatch from Greece, he considers the rise of Golden Dawn and the social effects of austerity. In a final coda, he visits a food bank near his house in London and asks: what can Greece's example tell us about Britain's austere future?

India after the blackout

William Dalrymple considers the contradiction at the heart of India: that its seemingly meteoric rise has divided the country even more sharply between the haves and have-nots.

For, even at the height of India’s boom, amid talk of space missions to Mars and fleets of nuclear submarines, and as the country tripled its defence budget to become one of the world’s top ten military spenders, it has also been home to one-third of the world’s poor. A full quarter of its population – about 310 million people – live in poverty.

Mexico's drug war: the battle without hope

Malcolm Beith, author of the book Narco, reveals the incredible toll of drug violence in Mexico and wonders why the one solution the US won't consider to the "war on drugs" is decriminalisation.

In 2009, a man nicknamed El Pozolero – “the stew-maker” – was arrested and confessed to dissolving the remains of more than 300 people in vats of caustic soda for a drug kingpin. Later that year, a man working for rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was found; he had been beheaded and his face had been carved off and delicately stitched on to a football.

Israel's endless war

In November, the New Statesman's editor Jason Cowley visited Israel, just as it began a renewed assault on Gaza. He found a country unwilling to question its actions.

The message from inside Israel was one of profound and unyielding unity. “There can be no peace,” it is said, “until Hamas stops trying to kill us,” irrespective of the context in which Hamas acts or the suffering of the Palestinians inside Gaza.

Earlier in the year, the NS had looked at the fading possibility of a peaceful two-state solution, with Jonathan Freeland's essay Yearning For the Same Land, and Ali Abunimah's response

Ai Weiwei: If someone is not free, I am not free

In October, the NS was guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who wanted to draw attention to the routine censorship of dissenting voices by the Chinese state. 

Features editor Sophie Elmhirst visited him in his studio, just outside Beijing, and wrote a long profile of a complex man: 

Ai lives like a king, though not in the clichéd sense. It’s more that he lives like an embattled medieval monarch, trapped in a palace that is half power base, half prison. Every day, visitors pass through to pay their respects or in the hope of finding favour. In the week I’m there, journalists, fans, gallerists, film-makers, photographers, artists, old friends and new all make their pilgrimage to the studio, and Ai patiently entertains them, having his picture taken or answering the same questions he has answered in the scores of other interviews he has done this year. One asks him to play “Water” in an experimental art film; Ai shrugs and agrees.

If Ai’s studio is his court, then Twitter is his kingdom. He might not be able to leave China, and rarely leaves his neighbourhood, but he can encounter his population directly through the social media site. He tweets to his 170,000 followers continuously; commenting on the latest political twists, retweeting support from followers and championing the causes of fellow dissidents. In 2005, he was invited to set up a blog by the internet company Sina Weibo, to which he contributed regularly until it was shut down four years later. Since then Twitter has been his platform of choice.

In his guest-edited issue, Ai used his leader column to issue a call to China to "recognise itself". "Right now, in China, we are living in conditions that no other generation has ever experienced – of great economic growth and expansion, but also great oppression of freedom of speech and human rights," he wrote. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage