President Morsi at the UN General Assembly in September. Photograph: Getty Images
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Ignore the neocons, says Mehdi Hasan – I refuse to give up on Egypt, or the Arab spring

Long live the Arab Spring - despite the murmurs about Morsi’s “pharaonic” decree in Egypt and the Syrian bloodbath, I refuse to lose faith in the people of the Arab world.

Voltaire wrote that “optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable”. With the residents of Gaza and Homs still burying their dead and tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo marching on Tahrir Square, there doesn’t seem to be much light or hope in the Middle East. Pessimists abound. Over the past year or so, the doom-mongers and naysayers of the western commentariat have fallen over one another to try to write the definitive obituary of the Arab revolts, which, lest we forget, kicked off in December 2010 with the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi.

Cynicism has been married to cliché: “The Arab spring is giving way to an Arab winter,” wrote the self-professed neoconservative Douglas Murray in a Spectator cover story in November 2011. “The Arab spring is a misnomer,” added the US neocon Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post in July 2012. “This is an Islamist ascendancy . . .”

Divisive trigger

I concede that recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region. On 22 November, fresh from his internationally acclaimed role in securing a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the Egyptian president (and ex-Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik) Mohamed Morsi decided to issue a decree giving himself sweeping powers, including the authority to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution”.

Overnight, his decree triggered sit-ins, dem - onstrations and clashes. “He has been a very divisive figure,” Dr H A Hellyer, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells me, noting how Morsi won only 52 per cent of the vote in June’s election. “He doesn’t have revolutionary legitimacy.”

Is Morsi a modern-day Cincinnatus, the 5th-century Roman dictator who relinquished power after just 16 days and resigned the moment he had defeated the city’s enemies? Or even Egypt’s Abraham Lincoln, the president who amassed such huge powers during the American civil war, only to surrender them all when the fighting ended in 1865? Only time will tell. But I refuse to give up on Egypt – or, for that matter, the Arab spring. Not yet, at least.

For a start, shouldn’t we be celebrating the backlash against Morsi’s decree and how instant it was? The president’s power grab was not just illegitimate, but ill-judged. His justice minister, Ahmed Mekky, went on television to object to the scope of the decree. The onetime presidential candidate and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a hero of Egypt’s liberal minority, took to Twitter to accuse Morsi of usurping “all state powers” and appointing himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh”. Wael Ghonim, the internet activist who became a crucial figure in the anti-Mubarak uprising of 2011, joined the chorus of angry critics. “Power corrupts,” he tweeted on 23 November. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely!”

As Egypt’s top judges threatened to go on strike, thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on 27 November, repeating the chant that became the defining slogan of the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” Second, at the time of writing, the backlash looks like it might be working. Morsi has begun to perform a David-Cameron-type U-turn, claiming his new powers are much narrower and more temporary than the announcement originally indicated.

This pharaoh, it seems, isn’t immune to political or popular pressure.

Remember: just 21 months have elapsed since the fall of Mubarak, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years, and just five months since the election of Morsi. “It’s going to take some time” for Egypt to adapt to democracy, says Hellyer, who lives in Cairo. “There was always going to be a lot of trauma.”

In May this year, I took part in a debate at the Oxford Union on the future of the Arab spring. The cynics and fearmongers were represented that evening by the Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Daily Telegraph’s hawk-in-chief, Con Coughlin, and the retired US general Keith Dayton. Their argument boiled down to two complaints: why do Muslim Arabs keep voting for Islamist parties? And why aren’t we seeing much more change in the Middle East, at a much quicker pace?

Dayton emphasised this latter point in particular. I had to point out to him that his own country, the United States, won independence from Great Britain in 1776; it took another 89 years to abolish slavery and another hundred years after that to secure equal voting rights for African Americans.

Taking the long view

It’s worth noting that, compared to the transitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were subjected to foreign military interventions and occupation, the Arab spring has been a success.

Tens of thousands have perished in Afghanistan over the past decade; in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been shot, slashed and bombed to death. By contrast, Egypt and Tunisia have been quite stable.

Yes, Syria continues to burn but Assad cannot survive much longer, the Bahrainis continue to revolt against their brutal royal rulers, and in Jordan thousands of protesters took to the streets in the middle of November for the first time to call for an end to King Abdullah’s rule.

“It is too soon to say,” the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is said to have remarked when asked, in 1971, for his view on the success of the French Revolution of 1789. In our 24/7 age, we need a dose of such long-termism; revolutions are measured in years and decades, not weeks and months. Yes, the stakes are high in Egypt and yes, Morsi, like every other autocratic leader, Islamist or otherwise, is not to be trusted. Power, after all, corrupts. But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post and an NS contributing writer. This piece also appears at the Huffington Post here

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.