US hypocrisy on Egypt

President Obama last night called for 'concrete steps' to advance democratic rights in Egypt. Here is one concrete step he could make. He could cut the American aid that is propping up the rotting Mubarak dictatorship the Egyptian people are so heroically striving to rid themselves of.

If Obama were to do so, Mubarak would be running for his plane with the same speed that the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali ran for his.

The Mubarak regime is the second largest recipient of US aid in the world. And as the democracy protestors on the streets are directly experiencing, that money is buying the tear-gas they are choking on (see picture). Without American support Mubarak's days would be numbered.

So why does Obama not just do the right thing? How can the US Vice President Joe Biden say the craven thug Mubarak is 'not a dictator'? Why was it that even after dozens of deaths in Tunisia, and right up to the overthrow of their dictator, American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was stating the Americans 'would not be taking sides'?

Neither the Americans nor our own government will take the side of the protestors. They are not on the side of 'democracy',  they are on the side of what Tony Blair described, in typically Orwellian language, as 'stability'. 'Stability' is code for supporting those regimes in the Middle East who best support American interests. And Egypt is a key ally. It protects the Suez Canal, vital for the movement of oil supplies to the West; and it is a willing supporter of America's most important ally in the Middle East, Israel, in its repression of the Palestinians.

The movement for democracy is not just terrifying Mubarak and other dictators across the Arab worlds, it is scaring the daylights out of their backers in the White House and Downing Street. If the Arab peoples had anything approximating democracy in their countries there is no way they would allow their natural resources to be exploited by Western multinationals, no way they would allow their governments to do the bidding of the West and collude in the oppression of the Palestinians. Hosnai Mubarak knows this too well, as does President Obama.

If the Americans calculate that Mubarak is finished they will no doubt try to pose as friends of the people. But if democracy is to be won in Egypt it will be the Egyptian people who will deliver it.

The reports of the demonstrations describe people of all classes, ages and even entire families taking to the streets. Their bravery and heroism is inspiring. At the time of writing Al Jazeera is reporting that tanks sent onto the streets of Egypt to quell democracy protestors were instead fraternising with them. Other reports suggest clashes between the army and the people. My sincere hope is that these are signs that the Egyptian soldiers are starting to side with their brothers and sisters and not the tyrants.

As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians again take to the streets today, my thoughts and prayers are with them.

George in top form on Question Time

If you didn't catch it last night, watch and enjoy here.

A victory for equal rights

Imagine turning up to a hotel with your partner, only to be turned away because the hotel decides they don’t like the look of you. This sort of thing used to be common. Landlords could get away with displaying signs that said “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs”. Places of entertainment could employ doorman to turn away the ‘wrong sort’.

This soul-destroying experience of discrimination and bigotry is one that black, Irish and Muslim communities have known only too well in recent decades. And, behind the scenes, this sort of discrimination goes on today. If your face doesn’t fit, then you may still find that there is ‘no room at the inn’.

But at least the law is acting to put an end to this discrimination. Recently a court in Bristol ruled that a Christian couple did not have the right to turn away a gay couple who had booked to stay at their hotel.

People should have the right to live their own lives according to their own beliefs, religious or otherwise. Who you choose to invite into your own home is your concern. But if you run a public business, then you have a responsibility to all of us to treat people fairly, equally, and with dignity.

These legal landmarks are critical moments in challenging discrimination. They help to establish the norm that we are all equal, irrespective of our differences. They help to make our society more civilised and humane. In upholding the rights of the gay couple, the court is protecting the rights of all us who do not want to find the door slammed in our face because of the colour of our skin, or indeed our religion.

'Bin Laden and Ben Ali. Tunisia says no thank you!'

A big thanks to Naima Bouteldja for her report and photos of the Tunisian solidarity demo held in Paris on Saturday.

"About 10000 people marched through the streets of Paris in a show of support for the "Jasmine Revolution" yesterday.

Demonstrators, in their great majority French of Tunisian and Arab descent, assembled at Place de la République, customising the statue of Marianne with Tunisian flags.

Makeshift signs and slogans outnumbered the official flags and placards of the various political groupings the most popular being “Ben Ali Assassin” and "Ben Ali, clear off". One slogan also read “Bin Laden and Ben Ali. Tunisia says no thank you!”

Alongside the Tunisian national anthem, songs of independence and religious recitations filled the air. The atmosphere was of great celebration and joy.

Among the demonstrators were families and people of all ages glad to see the back of Ben Ali. Not only was this a day of rejoicing among many of the Tunisian diaspora, estimated at around 600,000 living in France, but also an opportunity for many in the rest of the North African communities to show their solidarity hoping that the spark in Tunisia catches alight particularly in Algeria and Egypt.

Nobody knows what will happen next. One Tunisian political dissident told me: "we can expect the best as the worst" but for the time being and after all those years of political disillusions and defeats let's just all enjoy the moment."

People's power in Tunisia

Great news from Tunisia! Popular protest has forced the corrupt President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country. Good riddance!

The uprising of the Tunisian people was sparked by increases in the costs of cooking oil and sugar but underneath it is a desire for economic justice, civil liberties and democracy.

The intifada in Tunisia will be scaring the living daylights out of corrupt rulers across the Arab world. They are right to be afraid. For far too long the Arab peoples have had to endure the humiliation of being ruled by corrupt, dictatorial, Western-backed stooges. My hope is that the Tunisian intifada will be the spark for a broader revolt that will give to the Arab peoples the justice for which they so desperately yearn.

Egypt's Muslims and Christians unite

Reports of the recent suicide attack on Egyptian Christians attending a church service in Alexandria made for depressing reading. There are fears that the attack signals a growth in religious sectarianism.

I was really heartened therefore to read about the inspiring acts of solidarity Egyptian Muslims have shown towards their Christian brothers and sisters in the aftermath of the New Year's Day bombing.

Juan Cole reports that:

"Thousands of Muslims honored a promise made by their leaders and showed up at Christmas Mass or at candlelight vigils outside Egyptian churches offering their bodies as human shields against any acts of terrorists…

Father Marqus, the Bishop of Alexandria, said that in his entire life he had never seen the degree of solidarity of Muslims with Coptic Christians that he has witnessed in recent days. He said that Muslims attending the funeral of the Christian victims of the New Year’s Day bombing had treated them like Muslim martyrs, pronouncing ‘God is Great!’ in mourning, and had erupted in applause at the condemnation of the terrorists."

A new wave of student protests in 2011

It is great to see that students are getting ready for a new wave of protest in 2011. The Tories and Lib Dems rushed through a vote in parliament on tuition fees in the hope that everyone would just meekly accept the damage they have done. Instead they have inspired a movement that is determined to fight for education.

A major national demonstration has now been called for 29 January, with the support of several trades unions and a range of student campaigns.I was shocked to read that the National Union of Students have voted against supporting this demonstration. Surely the role of NUS is to throw everything it can into reversing this disastrous attack on education? If not, what is the point of a student’s union?

Mary Roberston, who was part of the occupation at the School of Oriental and African Studies, explains why a campaign is underway to get rid of the NUS President, Aaron Porter. You can read her piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

Students debate fees fight

The fight against education cuts is opening up heated debate inside the National Union of Students.

Student activists from the Free Education Campaign are deeply critical of the role being played by NUS National President, Aaron Porter.

You can read their case here.

Photo: Fiona Edwards, from the Free Education Campaign.

There is an alternative to the VAT rise

VAT hammers the poor hardest, because they spend almost all their meagre incomes, whereas the rich save a big chunk of theirs…Instead of raising VAT and national insurance this year, the government could introduce taxes on carbon and financial transactions next year. And it should levy a tax on land values. Since all the land in Britain is worth some £5 trillion, an annual levy of 1% could raise £50bn a year – without depressing economic activity, because land is in fixed supply: central London can't be spirited away to a tax haven. As well as preventing property bubbles (and busts), a land tax would be fair. A mere 160,000 people (mostly hereditary landowners) own more than two-thirds of Britain – and the value of that land increases not through their own striving, but through that of others. Surely it would be better to tax this windfall gain than the hard work and enterprise of those who generate it?

Excellent article from Phillippe Legrain in Guardian. You can read it in full here.

Police have to win trust for new powers

According to reports in the Guardian, the police are asking for new powers to stop and search people without the need to suspect them of any involvement in crime. We are entitled to ask whether the police can be trusted with such exceptional powers.

There is no doubt that the police have a difficult job to do. Faced with a possibly devastating terrorist attack in a crowded location, it might be necessary for all of us to accept that they need the ability to stop and search anyone they choose, for any reason. In those situations we would have to trust the police to act only when truly necessary, and to do so effectively and fairly.

Unfortunately, recent experience suggests we should be careful before giving the police too many powers. After all they are asking for new powers because the previous legislation – Section 44 of the Terrorism Act – was so grossly misused that European judges ruled it unlawful.

More than 100,000 people were stopped under Section 44 in 2009. Not a single one of these stops led to an arrest for terrorism. Those being stopped were disproportionately from black and minority ethnic communities. On top of that, Section 44 was used against photographers and peaceful protestors. This type of discriminatory and disproportionate policing does not make us safer, but simply generates anger and distrust among law-abiding members of the community.

If the police are going to make the case for additional powers, they need to show that they have learned the lessons from these failures. They have some way to go.

The Queen's question

After listening to an lecture on the financial crisis at the prestigious London School of Economics in November 2008, the Queen somewhat impertinently asked, 'how come nobody could foresee it?'

How come indeed. In his new book, '23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism' Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang provides some answers.

Chief among them is that for the last 30 years we have been blinded by endless propaganda from economist and politician alike about how free market capitalism is the best way to organise society.

Like a religious mantra it has been drummed into our heads that, if subject to only the lightest regulation, markets are inherently self correcting and guaranteed to ensure the most optimum and efficient allocation of resources.

Chang demonstrates this is nonsense. He dismantles myth after myth about how capitalism actually works as opposed to how we are led to believe it works. Again and again he illustrates a conviction, learned the hard way by our ancestors during the 1930's, that it was in the public interest that market capitalism be regulated.

While the economists of today became hypnotised by the apparent infallibility of the finance sector, their predecessors half a century ago would not gave been.

They had lived through the Great Depression. They had seen how economies driven to meet the short term needs of shareholders did long term damage to the underlying economy. They had experienced how the interests of the private financial sector was opposed to interests of society as a whole, and therefore had to be tightly regulated.

That's why the Roosevelt administration introduced strict regulations, including the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, putting a wall between investment and commercial banking (torn down by the Clinton Administration in 1999). And it is why Labour's 1944 manifesto carried the pledge to return finance 'to it's role as the servant, and the intelligent servant, of the community and productive industry; not their stupid master'.

Chang agrees that the market 'is an exceptionally effective mechanism for coordinating complex economic activities across numerous economic agents'. He argues that while the Soviet command economies could be remarkably successful when confronted with tasks which were relatively simple and clear during it's early industrialisation phase, once the economy developed and became more complex, decision making became more complicated and the central planning mechanisms in place were simply not up to the task.

However, he disagrees in investing markets with some divine power.

The market is nothing more than a mechanism-a machine that like a powerful car needs careful steering and good breaks. He highlights over and over how the state not only regulated the market, but subverts it by intervening and allocating resources in the public interest.

Chang also points out that you did not have to be alive during the Great Depression of the 1930's to learn the lesson that capitalism has inherent destructive tendencies.

Since the 1980's there have been dozens of smaller financial crisis: the 1982 Third World debt crisis, the 1995 Mexico peso crisis, the 1997 Asian crisis and the 1998 Russian crisis. For those not blinkered to see it, the writing was on the wall.

We have been failed by a right wing economic model and those politicians, on both right and left, who became enthralled to it. Today millions of people around the world pay the price for that failure in unemployment, cuts to wages and welfare provision. If we are to see any silver lining in the dark clouds above, one must be an opportunity for public re-education about the need to subvert markets to people, not the other way around.

To that end, Chang's book should be required reading.

Christians in Iraq

Wednesday's Channel Four News report on the plight of Iraq's Christians made for sad viewing. This is a community that has existed in the region for 2,000 years. Some of them still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Yet their very future is under threat.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq the size of its Christian community has literally halved. While unfavorable demographics and immigration are contributing factors, thousands more have been forced to seek refuge abroad as sectarian religious hatred has made their lives unbearable.

The primary responsibility for this exodus lies with Al Qaeda and their ilk. It is they who are planting the bombs in Churches; it is they who are murdering priests and worshippers; and it is they who seek to sow the seeds of religious hatred. Their intention is clear. They intend to attack Christians 'wherever they can be reached' and fully intend to 'open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood."

It is too simplistic to describe what is taking place as a Muslim-Christian conflict or a 'clash of civilizations'. The vast majority of those fleeing Iraq seek refuge in Muslim majority countries elsewhere in the Middle East. And there is a long history of religious coexistence and tolerance in the region.

But it undeniably the case that the invasion of Iraq has stoked the flames of religious hatred and provided a fertile breeding ground for those hate filled agendas. As William Dalrymple notes, it is ironic that a war championed by self avowed Christians in Bush and Blair, and described as a 'crusade' by one of them, has 'created the environment that led to the destruction of Christianity in one of its ancient heartlands – something Arab, Mongol and Ottoman conquests all failed to pull off'.