Monday Link Salad

Mary Beard recently gave a lecture on the long cultural history of silencing women’s voices, the text is online. Which juxtaposed well (in the sense that it’s similar cultural roots) with the programme we just watched on how Greek attitudes to luxury still affect our own. And juxtaposed in a timely fashion with the bigotry in SFWA thing that’s been rumbling on for the last year – the latest iteration of which blew up just recently and includes someone critiquing a woman’s appearance as a part of a rationale for dismissing her. Having read the lecture just before I read about the SFWA thing it was interesting to see how many times I saw it linked in comments.

Ben Goldacre on the NHS data sharing plan – he says with well thought out arguments and evidence things that match my gut feel on it. Having the data available to medicine would be extremely useful and is a Good Thing, it’s a shame they’re botching the explanation and the regulatory side of it :/

Reshaping Reality has a post up on how science works, the fundamental uncertainties at the roots of physics & thus the whole of science and why scientific literacy matters which includes a list of blogs and books about science.

James Nicoll’s micro reviews of the Science Fiction Book Club books of July 2000 – the one that caught my eye was SUBURBAN GODS (2-in-1 of HOW LIKE A GOD and DOORS OF DEATH AND LIFE) by Brenda W. Clough, that he recommends and I’ve never heard of.

Also from James Nicoll some potential reading list generators – list of women authors who debuted in the 1970s, and 1980s with recommendations from people about books of theirs to read. Mine are in comments on those posts. Lots of them I’ve not read anything by, gonna give the lists a little time to multiply then construct myself a list of books to look for.

Ever wondered what the cryptic spray paint marks are on UK pavements?

In the “OMG I’m old, how’d that happen?” department is this: Descent is 19 years old!! Not a game I ever really got the hang of, I remember J liking it a lot tho. While we were at uni. Which is clearly only yesterday.

Also off RPS (I’m a bit behind on reading it) is confirmation that Steam Tags really are as bad an idea as I thought they would be. They do seem to’ve added functionality so you can report tags but what rock have they been hiding under for the last decade or two to not realise that unmoderated open to all tagging on the internet was going to generate problems?

Chroma looks interesting, but a bit of an odd idea … could be good, could be terrible, have to wait & see. And Doom 4 looks like it’s going to be a thing … can’t work out if that’s exciting or not, I got more into Quake (3 and 4) than any of the Dooms.

Trying to read old Scottish documents? This might help – via my father, who managed to decipher the 17th Century marriage record that I completely failed to read 🙂

Cats taking selfies … because the internet is for cat pictures.

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North is a book I’d like to read – similar underlying premise as Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” (post) but goes in a different direction. Link via Lady Business.

Apps installed recently include Crowdsourced Weather which uses the sensors on your phone to detect local weather data. Doesn’t seem to have many people using it yet according to the map, but I now have on my phone something that tells me the barometric pressure, the magnetic field of the earth where I am, the temperature (using an algorithm to figure it out from battery temp, a little flaky) and how light it is. This may not be particularly useful but it makes me happy 🙂

Also using Muzei, which gives you a new backdrop every day or so, each one is a famous work of art. A little bit of art appreciation on my phone 🙂 There’s plenty of plugins for things like NASA’s APOD too.

And finally got round to installing Untappd, which lets you track which different beers you’ve tried. It also lets you spam facebook/twitter/foursquare with what you drink, but I’m not doing that 😉

The TV programmes I told the PVR to record this week are rather WW1 heavy:

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 4

The fourth and final episode of Tarek Osman’s Making of the Modern Arab World covered the 10 years leading up to the events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Osman drew out three strands that he felt were important in that decade. One of these is the growing population of the Arab countries. Osman said he’s 38, and in his lifetime the population of Egypt has doubled. Two thirds of the country is under the age of 25. The available jobs and opportunities for these young people haven’t kept up with the growth of the population, and that has had a large impact on the way people see the future (both their own and the country’s). Osman talked to an activist who said she felt that Egyptian society was stuck, like being stuck in a traffic jam.

Another strand of events leading up to the Arab Spring was that the authoritarian leaders of these nominally democratic republics were all getting old. And instead of these being a point where the people could hope for change, it became clear that they were grooming their sons to lead after their deaths. Osman said that when Hafez Al-Assad’s son took power in 2000 at first the general population thought this might bring change – Bashar Al-Assad being young and educated in Britain, perhaps he would be less authoritarian. But it quickly became clear this was not the case, and that meant people in other countries in the region didn’t even have hope that things would change when their own leaders passed away. And this added to the sense of almost insult at the overt handing down of power to sons rather than any pretence at democracy.

Information, and access to it, was the final strand of this narrative. This has two facets – the first of these is that the regimes lost control of the information that their citizens could access. The rise of the internet, and with it the rise of globally accessible media, meant that the general populace was much more aware of what was going on in other countries. And that people could communicate, and organise, much more effectively. Osman talked to an activist who would organise protests on facebook, with 70,000 people who followed his facebook page – you can’t get that sort of reach with more conventional organisation.

The other facet of this strand is the lack of information that the regime had. Osman talked about how Mubarak and the other leaders over time became more set in their ways, and more isolated from the general populace. They weren’t concerned with what the general public thought – dismissing them as unimportant. Osman didn’t say this outright, but I think he was saying that the centre of these regimes didn’t even know they’d lost control of what information their people were seeing. A couple of different civil servants from the Mubarak regime talked about how Mubarak wasn’t interested in change nor was he interested in planning ahead. One said that he had tried to suggest change in the education system to keep up with the demands of modern global society, but that Mubarak wasn’t interested. Another anecdote was that when talking about trying to fix future problems Mubarak’s attitude was that there was enough to do to fix the problems of today, so why add more problems. Whereas the civil servant felt that if you looked at tomorrow as well you might solve today’s problems a different way.

These strands all came together in the actual events of the Arab Spring – where one man’s suicidal protest in Tunisia was seen by other disaffected young people across the whole region, instead of being covered up by the regime. And once seen they could react, and act. The results of the Tunisian uprising then inspired other country’s in turn. Osman ended the programme on a bittersweet note – he talked to a woman who’d taken part in the Egyptian protests that drove out Mubarak. She reminisced about how it felt like they had risen up and become free and made something better. And she hoped perhaps one day her country would manage to sustain that.

The series as a whole has been interesting. However, for all it says in the title it’s a history of the whole of the modern Arab world the focus is firmly on Egypt. Not that surprising, as that’s Osman’s country. It was definitely interesting hearing the history from an Egyptian perspective, rather than an outsider perspective.

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 3

In the third episode of The Making of the Modern Arab World Tarek Osman looked at the rise of political Islam since the 1970s. He started by reminding us of the context for this, which he talked about more in the previous episode (post). As of about 1966 Nasser was both the leader of Egypt and the most prominent public face of Arab Nationalism. The state and politics were secular in nature, and to some degree so was the general population – women generally did not go veiled, for instance. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were repressed, and their leaders and activists imprisoned, brutally treated, and potentially executed. The regime was also fairly left wing, and pro-Soviet. Then in 1967, with the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel, Arab Nationalism lost a lot of face. Nasser died in 1970 and his successor, Anwar Sadat, changed the focus of the state.

Sadat liked to see himself as “the pious President”, and took pains to present himself as a good Muslim. He backed off on the repression of Islamist groups, releasing many of their members from prison and permitting them to openly take jobs at universities. At the same time he was swinging the political compass of the regime towards the right, and towards the USA and capitalism. He also started to shrink the state involvement in the welfare of the poor. As the country embraced capitalism Sadat removed the subsidies that were artificially keeping the price of bread low – after riots from students and workers who could no longer afford food the subsidies were reinstated.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups took advantage of both the perceived corruption of the state, and the gap opening up in care for the poor. Islamist rhetoric held out the hope that if Islam was fully integrated into the state then politics would be more honest & less corrupt. There was also a prominent notion that the reason the war against Israel had failed was that the Arab states had turned away from religion and so God was no longer on their side. The Muslim Brotherhood were also involved in widespread charitable works – providing for the poor who were being failed by the state, which encouraged people to regard them as a viable alternative to the authoritarian state.

1979 was a year containing three events that were to lead to increased support for Islamist groups across the region. One of these was the revolution in Iran – this might’ve been Shia rather than Sunni but it was proof that an Islamist uprising could overthrow a secular state. Another was the signing of a treaty between Egypt and Israel, which was taken as evidence of the state’s corruption and decline. And thirdly the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets pitted Islamist forces (such as the Taliban) against the Soviets – by Cold War logic this meant that the US and other Western groups saw the Islamist groups as their potential allies, and hence worth funding and training.

Another growing influence on the Arab region was the Saudi Arabian regime. The balance of political and economic power was shifting away from places like Egypt and towards the oil countries. Many Egyptians and nationals of other countries went to work in Saudi Arabia, and many of them became more religious and more conservative under the influence of the culture they were now living in. When they returned to their native countries after several years they kept contact with people they knew in Saudi Arabia. Along with funding suitable Islamist groups this was a conduit for Saudi Arabian influence in the politics of countries like Egypt.

Osman talked about how over the next couple of decades (the 80s and the 90s) the Islamist groups were struggling against the “near enemy”, i.e. the regimes of their own states. After the end of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan at the end of the 80s many of the groups that had been involved in that jihad felt flush with success – they felt they had brought down the Soviet Union and the time was ripe for success in their own countries. This was not to be. A Muslim Brotherhood led uprising in Syria was brutally dealt with at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and the breaking of the back of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation in that country. The Algerian civil war, sparked after the army overturned the election of an Islamist leader ended in defeat for the Islamist forces, after the loss of many lives. And in Egypt Mubarak had come to power after the assassination of Sadat by Islamist soldiers (in the early 80s), and brutally cracked down on Islamist groups. Violent protest was undertaken by extremist Islamist groups during the 80s and early 90s, but the Luxor Massacre in 1996 actually caused that to die down. Osman said that public opinion, and opinion of mainstream and even somewhat radical Islamist groups, was appalled and shaken by the massacre and the extremists who’d carried it out were denounced.

So towards the end of the 20th Century the radical Islamist groups were failing in their struggle at against the near enemy. Osman said that this is why their attention began to turn to the “far enemy”. The USA and other Western powers were involved in propping up the secular and authoritarian regimes that the Islamists were struggling against. So groups like Al Qaeda turned their attention outwards towards these foreign powers.

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 2

After a fairly long hiatus over Christmas we’ve started listening to radio programmes with our Sunday morning breakfast again. This week we listened to the second episode of The Making of the Modern Arab World. From the brief descriptions on the BBC website the first three episodes are covering the three major strands of political ideology in the region, and the fourth one looks at the lead up to the Arab Spring. The first episode had been about the secular liberal movement that rose during the early 20th Century, which moved away from the Muslim nature of the preceding Ottoman Empire but didn’t change the old class hierarchy nor did it succeed in winning full independence from the European colonial powers. This episode was looking at the Arab Nationalist movement that rose as the opposition to this.

Tarek Osman opened the programme by talking about the war in 1948 where several Arab nations fought against the new state of Israel. This conflict had been presented to the ordinary people of the Arab nations as having a foregone conclusion – obviously the Arab states would win against this upstart nation. And when this wasn’t the way that things turned out, the ruling elite of the countries lost a lot of face and respect. Particularly in the case of Egypt there was also a feeling amongst the army officers (among them Gamal Abdel Nasser) that the ruling elite was lazy and self-indulgent, and were responsible for the failure of the war. When Nasser returned to Egypt after the war he organised what started as a military coup, but turned into a popular revolution.

The coup had started as an alliance between the army officers (who were generally younger) and the Muslim Brotherhood (which had been a political organisation since the 1920s). Osman said that the Muslim Brotherhood leader had anticipated being the real leader after the revolution was over, regarding the army officers as not knowing what they were doing. For instance he wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to be given a veto on any policy decisions. But this was not well received by their allies and the alliance broke down – the army officers with Nasser at their head were now ruling the country alone.

Nasser was incredibly popular in Egypt. Osman talked about some of the things that helped to make this the case – one of which was a Muslim Brotherhood assassination attempt on Nasser while he was giving a speech. He reacted with courage (as well as a clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood), and gained a lot of respect from people for it. He also gained a lot of respect because of the dispute with Britain over the Suez Canal – Nasser nationalised it, which upset the British & the French because they no longer controlled this strategically important waterway. So the UK and France allied with Israel, and sent troops in hoping to retake the Suez Canal and get rid of Nasser. However without the support of the US this military action failed – greatly boosting Nasser’s popularity not just in Egypt but across the Arab nations. He had beaten the old colonial powers, and Israel.

In terms of more practical reasons, he & his government also passed laws reforming land ownership. During the monarchy & before there were very few landowners – and most peasants lived on land owned by someone else, with a restrictive feudal system in place. Nasser’s reforms meant that many more people owned the land they lived on, and so they could then make money (and family members could get other jobs and make more money). They could send their children to the towns for education if they wished, and could aspire to become middle class. Many did, and so saw Nasser as someone on the side of social justice and the common people. Also during Nasser’s regime the Aswan High Dam was built, invigorating the economy.

Nasser believed in Arab Nationalism, and talked a lot about the idea of a single Arab country. This didn’t go down well with the still existent monarchies in places like Saudi Arabia, but met with a much better reception in places like Syria’s fledgling democracy. The Ba’ath party was formed by Syrian army officers, as a secular Arab Nationalist party – and took inspiration from Nasser. The rhetoric of a single Arab nation met with such approval that the Syrians offered to merge with Egypt, creating the United Arab Republic. This met with great approval at first, but after only 3 years Syria seceded and the United Arab Republic was over. The reality had been that Syria was to become part of Egypt – it was Egyptians in charge, it was the Syrian military and political parties that had to dissolve – and this was unpalatable to both ordinary Syrians and the ruling elite alike.

Nasser’s regime lost more of its glitter before the end – he lead the disastrous war (for the Arab nations) against Israel in the late 1960s. Israel’s decisive victory meant Nasser, like the King before him, lost face. Nasser died not long after, but his legacy still shapes Arab politics. Many leaders in Arab countries modelled their regimes after what they had seen work for Nasser. However, Osman pointed out that they took the wrong elements from it – instead of the charisma and bond with his people that had made Nasser so popular, people like Gaddafi and Assad instead emulated the autocratic despotic and militaristic aspects of Nasser’s rule. The programme talked to people who were less glowingly complimentary about Nasser than the above summary makes it sound. His policies of social reform were criticised for not going far enough, and for not actually being targeted at those most in need rather at those most useful or supportive of the state. The often brutal nature of the state was also discussed – and its capricious nature was illustrated by a woman who talked about how her father was a poet whose work was liked by Nasser, and several of his friends were incarcerated. But her father never was, because Nasser would cross his name off lists of “seditious” people who were due to be rounded up – so the poet escaped torture only by the whim of Nasser.

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 1

The Making of the Modern Arab World is a new Radio 4 series about the causes and recent history of the current political situation in the Middle East. It’s presented by Tarek Osman, an Egyptian author, along with several interviews with historians or the descendents of notable figures – his focus is on Egypt and Syria in particular. The first episode looks at the development and decline of Arab liberalism. Osman started by talking about the parallels between the 2011 uprising in Egypt and the 1919 Egyptian uprising against the British colonial government, and about how during the early 20th Century there was a period that could be seen as a golden age of liberalism in the Arab world. He then began to trace the rise of this liberal ideology, and the flowering of the Nahda – the Arabic renaissance.

Osman traced this story back to the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. This shook Arabic culture out of a sense of complacency about its place in the world. In this pre-European-colonial-empires time there weren’t the same tensions between “the West” and “the Middle East” that there are now. Scholars and intellectuals from Egypt and other parts of the Arab world visited European countries and investigated European philosophy & science, with an eye to taking what ideas they could and integrating them into their own Arab way of life & their Islamic religion. This lead to a period called the Nahda, often translated as the Arab renaissance. This wasn’t seen as Europeanising, but more as modernising and regaining the place in the world that they used to have (back when Europe was in the “Dark Ages” and the Islamic world was the centre of intellectual development).

However the drive to modernise came at a cost. The economies of the Egypt and other Arab countries weren’t set up to generate enough money to buy the new modern industrial infrastructure that they were putting in. So they got in debt to the European nations, in particular Britain and France. When economies collapsed, or there were popular uprisings against the governments, the British or French would step in and directly rule the country concerned. But the Nahda continued, and there was a growing elite with more liberal values than the traditional conservative society of these countries. This elite was encouraged by the colonial authorities via diplomacy during and after the First World War to consider themselves a potential stepping stone to self-rule for their countries.

As always comes up in the modern history of the Middle East the First World War is where Britain and France really sow the seeds of the current political conflicts both internally to the countries concerned and between the Arab world and Europe. To get the various past and current constituent countries of the Ottoman Empire on the side of Britain and France in the war they were all promised self-rule and lands of their own. And in addition the Jews were promised territory in Palestine. Several of these promises were contradictory, but that isn’t even the worst bit about the situation – after the war most of the promises weren’t kept at all. Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman Empire between themselves, and the Arab states didn’t get self-rule.

The sense of betrayal in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries was profound. Osman discussed the uprisings in Egypt (in 1919) and Syria against the colonial governments. Some initial amount of success – limited self-rule in Egypt after 1919, and a backing off of the French authorities in Syria (after the initial brutal crackdown) – lead the liberal elite to believe they had begun to achieve their goals. But the lack of results with Britain and France still holding onto the powers they wanted damaged the creditability of this elite with the rest of the population. Osman finished the programme by talking briefly about the movements that grew out this disillusionment with the liberal Westernised elite. One of these is the Arab nationalist movement, in particular the Ba’ath party in Syria, and the other is Islamism, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood which was founded in Egypt. These movements are the subject of the next couple of episodes.

In Our Time: The Corn Laws

In 1815 the British government passed a law fixing the price of grain at a higher than market price. This was the first of the Corn Laws, and it sparked rioting by those most affected – the urban poor. The laws were to last until the late 1840s, when they were finally repealed under pressure from manufacturers concerned about the effect on trade. The three experts who talked about these laws on In Our Time were Lawrence Goldman (Oxford University), Boyd Hilton (University of Cambridge) and Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey (London School of Economics).

They started the programme by giving us a bit of context. Britain in 1815 was at the start of the process of industrialisation and just coming to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. So there was concern about how the economy was going to adjust to the new demands of peace and industry. There was also concern over political instability in Europe, and worries about the spread of revolution to Britain (it’s not that long after the French Revolution after all). And the industrialisation of Britain was also shifting population and the balance of power more towards the growing manufacturing cities of the north, which was generating pressure for reform of Parliament and extension of the franchise.

So against this backdrop the landowners, who were the major interest represented in the Parliament of the time (both in terms of who has the vote and in terms of how many MPs come from which areas of the country) vote through a law that protects their profits from grain growing. During the war it was harder to import grain, so to feed the country more & more marginal land was forced into cultivation. Now that peace has broken out the landowners are worried that grain imports will force down the price of grain and the profits they make & the rents they can get from their tenant farmers will be reduced. The law was openly protectionist in nature and the landowners who passed it felt it was their due for supporting the country during the war.

Right from the start didn’t go as well as they had hoped. Britain wasn’t actually able to be self-sufficient, but the hope was that for the 4 or 5 years out of 6 when the harvest was good enough then British grain would be enough. And for the other 1 or 2 years in this cycle when the harvest failed then grain could be bought in from the Eastern European farmers and prevent famine. But as one might predict (with the benefits of a cursory, but 21st Century, knowledge of economics) without the market always being there the farmers of East Europe turned to other crops or other ways of making their living, rather than growing surplus corn just in case they could sell it to Britain. So further laws were passed trying to sort this situation out whilst still protecting the interests of the British aristocracy.

Into this situation comes the Great Reform Act of 1832. This extended the franchise to men with less property (one now needed land or a house to the value of £10). And the boroughs were redrawn – the system had been kept the same for about 400 years previously, despite changes in population. Previously there were areas (“rotten boroughs”) where there was little population but they had an MP, and places such as Manchester (a new and growing town in this period) had no representation. This reform changed the balance of power, and the industrialists started to campaign against the Corn Laws. From what the experts on the programme were saying this didn’t have much to do with the plight of those poor who couldn’t afford to buy bread. Instead it was about trading the goods that the manufacturers were making. If Britain wasn’t importing grain then it was hard to get other countries to buy Britain’s exports, which hurt the profits of the industrialists and the country’s economy as a whole. And it was about how if food is expensive, then people buy less clothing or other goods, and again less profit for the boss and less economic activity in general.

The Anti-Corn Law League was formed in 1838, and attracted many supporters. They were working towards a plan for repealing the Corn Laws after the planned 1848 election – involving propagandising to the country in general and the electorate in particular, and getting their sympathisers elected. The Anti-Anti Corn Law League (real name the Central Agricultural Protection Society – CAPS) was formed in 1844 to campaign in support of the Corn Laws. Schonhardt-Bailey gave us some figures to demonstrate something of their reach – the Anti-Corn Laws League started off with about £5,000 worth of subscriptions, and grew by 1845 to ~£250,000 worth of subscriptions. The CAPS had about ~£2,000 worth of subscriptions at that point. The CAPS were handicapped in a couple of ways – firstly their senior figures (like the Duke of Richmond) were the sort of people that fit contemporary stereotypes about useless & wasteful aristocrats, whereas the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League were charismatic and good persuaders. And the CAPS membership and support base was drawn from people who felt it wasn’t appropriate to take politics “out of doors” – i.e. politics was something that happened primarily in Parliament and between the Members of Parliament. So they had an ideological opposition to drumming up support amongst the electorate & the population at large.

Robert Peel, eventually responsible for repeal, properly enters this clash of ideologies in 1841 when he becomes Prime Minister as the leader of the Conservative Party. The programme digressed a bit to talk about Peel’s background here, as he’s the man responsible in the end for driving through repeal. Peel’s father had been a self-made man, who then became a baronet. Peel himself had been educated at Eton & Oxford, so brought up with the members of the elite, and went into politics. He was ideologically a good fit for the Conservative party of the time, but didn’t feel at ease with them – because he wasn’t part of the old aristocracy he was an outsider in some ways. The Conservative Party was generally in favour of the Corn Laws – they represented the old landed interests. Peel himself voted against repeal several times in the early 1840s, although the experts suggested that he’d always been in favour of repealing them. This probably wasn’t for the same sorts of reasons as the industrialists wanted to repeal them. The suggestion is that Peel saw the Corn Laws as protecting the short term interests of the landed aristocracy at the expense of their long term protection. Effectively he was spooked by the rioting and opposition of the general public to these laws, and believed that as long as these laws existed they kept inflamed the possibility of revolt like in France only half a century earlier. You might have hefty bank balances from your grain profits, but will that help you if the mob burn your house down?

The experts were saying that Peel started by introducing legislation to weaken the effects of the Corn Laws – they believed this was an attempt to avoid looking like he was betraying his party. The plan seemed to be to reduce the laws, and then win the 1848 election on the back of these partial repeals which would then give him the mandate to repeal the Corn Laws fully. But this isn’t how it played out, instead in 1846 Peel brought repeal to the table at Parliament, and managed to persuade sufficient of his party to support him to bring it about. The experts were suggesting perhaps he came to believe his party wouldn’t win the planned 1848 election, so wanted to get this done when the Conservatives would reap the political benefits. Apparently the language used around the issue at the time was fairly religious and overblown (with talk of martyrdom and so on), so perhaps Peel was also swept along by a feeling that it would be the right thing to do to politically die for his faith in repeal.

After the Corn Laws were repealed and a Free Trade approach to the economy was now employed. The experts said that the next couple of decades were very prosperous for Britain – with ample harvests, and plenty of growth in the economy. They also said that this didn’t have much to do with the Corn Laws or Free Trade – it was mostly a result of climatic conditions favourable to agriculture. But because of the presumed cause & effect – repeal of the Corn Laws –> prosperous Britain – this shaped the future of Britain. Free Trade was now seen in many circles as proven to lead to a booming economy.

The programme ended quite abruptly, as Bragg realised they were running out of time – one of the problems with this being a live show I guess. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. I’m not surprised it happened to this one, it was one of those subjects I thought might be a bit dull in advance but turned out to be fascinating once it got going.

Turkey: The New Ottomans

The third episode of Alan Little’s series about Turkey took a more in depth look at Turkey’s past & present relationship with Europe. One of the themes that Little was drawing out was that even tho the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was a hundred or so years in the past it was still the precursor for the Bosnian War in the 1990s. The Ottoman Empire had had Islam as the established religion – Christians & Jews were second class citizens. Only Muslims could be part of the government & in territories near to the core of the empire the ruling class were imported from the core. But as the empire spread the elite came from conversion of the native peoples, and this was the case in Bosnia. After the collapse of empire a lot of the Muslim elites left or were otherwise eradicated from the lands they’d previously ruled, but in Bosnia more of them stayed. The rise of a more modern nation state after the break up of Yugoslavia led to less tolerance of the Muslims, and Little pointed out that there was a folk memory of oppression beneath the Ottomans which was then turned against their Muslim countrymen.

Where this ties into modern Turkish/European relations is that the links & common cultural ground between Turkey and the Balkans are still strong – Little interviewed one Turkish businessman, who is descended from Bosnian refugees, and he was saying that trade links with the Balkans made obvious sense because the regions are so intertwined. So even with Turkey’s current focus on strengthening relations with their Arab neighbours the Balkans & other parts of Europe are still some of their biggest trading partners. And it’s this feeling of being aligned with Europe that lead to the AKP pushing to join the EU.

Little stated that it was the desire to join the EU that lead the AKP’s government to push through reforms on issues like human rights. And then the failure to join, with imposition of further conditions that Turkey regard as unfair, not only pushed Turkey towards their Arab neighbours but also stalled the reforms as not being “necessary” any more.

It’s been an interesting three programmes, although I feel it ended up a little incoherent. This was mostly down to events overtaking the programmes – both the protests in Turkey & the second Egyptian revolution (or coup, depending on how you like to think of it). But even so, I wasn’t always sure I knew what the take home message for each segment was supposed to be.

Turkey: The New Ottomans

The second episode of Turkey: The New Ottomans was called “North Africa and the Middle East” and was actually mostly a compare & contrast of the political situation in Turkey and in Egypt. Allan Little’s thesis was that the two are interesting to look at side by side because in Turkey an elected Islamist government has spent the last decade or so acting within a secular democratic constitution, whereas in Egypt the elected Islamists moved to reject any secular governmental practices & policies in favour of religious ones. As with the first episode, he had clearly had the idea for & written this programme before events caught up with him – so there were inserted references to the not-a-coup-honest in Egypt at the end of June, but the overall narrative of the programme was based on the Muslim Brotherhood being in power.

It felt a little odd having Turkey held up as an example of a functional system given the protests against their government & the authoritarian leanings (and human rights issues) of that government, but in terms of what Little was looking at this was the case. And when the first Egyptian revolution in 2011 overthrew Mubarak the hope (both internally for a lot of the protestors & externally from the West & Turkey in particular) was that Egypt would follow Turkey’s lead in marrying Islamist politics with secular politics.

One of the key differences between Turkey & Egypt in this context is the position of the military in the two countries over the last several decades. Little compared the legacy of Attaturk (who took power in Turkey after the Ottoman Empire fell, and is seen as the founder of the Turkish Republic) to that of Nasser (who took power in Egypt after the Second World War and can be seen as the founder of the modern Egyptian state). Attaturk is still remembered as a national hero in Turkey today, and the military were the power behind the throne since his time. Nasser however is less fondly remembered, and this is the result of his disastrous war against Israel (the 6 Days War). This war also humiliated the military in the eyes of the people. So Little was saying that in Turkey the military were a presence that would enforce the secular state constitution, and so the Islamists in Turkey are operating in a framework where that is seen as “the way things work”. However in Egypt the way the state was run was what Mubarak said, so once the Muslim Brotherhood took power they saw themselves as free to set up the country the way they wanted.

Another difference between the two situations is that the AKP when they took power at the state level had already a lot of experience at the municipal level – for instance the current Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdoğan, used to be Mayor of Istanbul and Little was saying he’d done a good job in the role. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had been in prison or exile before taking power.

Of course the events since the programme was initially conceived meant that Little’s point was undercut a bit. The overthrow of Morsi by a popular protest then military intervention might be Egypt getting itself on track for a more secular solution to government. Or perhaps not.

“The Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall of the Regime” Jeremy Bowen

J got me to reserve this book out of the library a few weeks ago, he’d seen a mention of it somewhere & when he finished he said he thought I’d like to read it. It’s an overview of the first 18 months or so after the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010/early 2011, as told by Jeremy Bowen who is a journalist with the BBC. The book is a combination of overviews of the political situation before, after & during the various revolutions and also of more personal anecdotes from Bowen as he travelled through the countries to report on the revolutions & their aftermath. So it’s very much one man’s account – it’s what he’s seen, what he’s been told & what he thinks it means. But it’s also one man’s expert account, so worth the read.

One of the themes he draws out is that the growing discontent wasn’t just because the ageing autocratic leaders were starting to pass power down to their children, it was also because the population was growing and changing. In these countries something like 60% of the population is under 30, and a large number of those people have never had jobs and had no sense that this could change. They were also more connected to each other than people would’ve been in the past. The internet & mobile phones opened up communication between people across a country & across the region. So the discontented no longer felt isolated, and with being able to see they weren’t alone came organisation & action. And the security services & the regimes were slow to catch on. Not only to try & stop people using modern ways to talk to each other, but they also failed to realise that modern technology makes it harder to brutalise people into pretending nothing happened – if the video of the beating/killing/whatever has already gone viral then the world knows you did it.

Bowen also didn’t shy away from detailing the many ways the West had caused the problems in the first place – not just the leftovers of the colonial era, but much more recently. The propping up of various regimes as part of the Cold War, for instance. Also the later propping up of the same regimes as they fought on the “right side” of the “War on Terror”. For all the preaching about democracy and human rights the reality of the situation was that a secular but brutally autocratic dictator was considered preferable to risking an Islamist government. Just ignore what he’s doing to his people … Even Gaddifi got rehabilitated towards the end, forgiven for his own sponsoring of terrorist activities because he was useful for the new anti-terrorism.

How nothing happens in isolation is another of the threads running through the book. The uprisings took off one after the other in part because with a common language & global communications people in one country could look at Tunisia or the following countries and imagine themselves doing the same thing. On the other hand, leaders like Gaddafi & Assad took away the lesson that if they wanted to squash their own revolutions they needed to be more brutal than, for instance, Mubarak. On a brighter note Bowen says that the NATO intervention in Libya grew out of the fact that some of the key players were in junior positions or on the sidelines during the 1990s and witnessed the non-intervention in the genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda. And so they were determined not to stand by & let Gaddafi get away with war crimes in their turn. But then that had the knock-on effect of influencing Russia’s veto over intervention in Syria, because they felt they’d been misled about the level of proposed intervention in Libya …

An interesting & thought provoking book. Reading it now when the coup? second revolution? in Egypt is in full swing was also a slightly odd experience – the Egyptians Bowen talked to who said “we know the way back to Tahrir Square” feel prescient now.

Turkey: The New Ottomans

Instead of an In Our Time this week we listened to the first episode of a recent series about Turkey from Radio 4. In the series Allan Little is looking at the current political situation in Turkey, both in terms of how it’s developed over the last few decades & how it’s interacting with the rest of the world.

This episode covered the internal politics & focussed on the rise of the AKP (the current ruling party in Turkey) and how they compared to the previous rulers. Around a hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire fell, and Turkey became a republic. The military were heavily involved in the formation of this republic, and there have been several coups over the years as the military replaced leaders they no longer approved of. The regime was authoritarian, but also very secular and focussed on being a part of the West. Little spoke to various people who were targeted by the previous regime because of their religion as much as anything else – anyone who was a practising Muslim was automatically suspect. Study of the Ottoman past was also suspect – textbooks for children glossed over it in a few paragraphs, archives of Ottoman papers etc were locked up & academics forbidden to look at them.

The growing discontent with the secular authoritarian regime led to the formation of the AKP about a decade ago, and at first this was seen as the dawning a of a new era. The election of the AKP put an Islamist but still Western-leaning party in power. Little talked to both members of the AKP and some of the same people he’d interviewed about the previous regime, and the picture all of them painted was of hope for the future at that time. The AKP were heavily invested in the idea of becoming a part of the EU and this drove both increasing prosperity (via their economic policies) and human rights reforms (to make themselves palatable to the EU).

However over time the AKP has become more authoritarian in its turn. Little opened the programme with a bit he’d recorded on the day the demonstrations in Gezi Park started (and I guess he had had the idea for the series before and had to re-write it as events caught up with him). Little, and some of his interviewees, linked the changes to both increasing confidence on the part of the AKP and to the rejection of the Turkey’s application to join the EU. Little made the point that majority rule is not the only thing required to make democracy a functional form of government – the rights of the minority & the right to oppose the elected government are also important. He was saying that the AKP are using their election to justify any changes they want to make, including talk of changing the constitution to make the AKP’s grip on power even stronger. This hasn’t sat well with the growing middle class, and it’s their discontent that is driving the recent protests. The next two programmes in the series will (I think) go into more depth about the change of focus from the West to the Arab world, so Little only covered it briefly here.