Opinion

John Lloyd

Egypt’s repeat search for democracy

John Lloyd
Jul 3, 2013 15:03 UTC

I’ve spent the past few days walking beside and watching the largely youthful demonstrators in Egypt, and I’ve been struck with admiration that’s quickly drowned in despair. I admire them for the way they’ve rejected the creeping authoritarianism of an incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government whose only accomplishment is inserting its members or sympathizers into every part of Egyptian life that it could.

But my despair is greater than my admiration. There is no good outcome to the Egyptian “second revolution,” as the opposition wishes it to be called. The army has taken control, and may — as it says it wishes — hold the ring only until a temporary constitution is agreed upon and another election called. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose government is led by President Mohamed Mursi, may, with reluctance, acquiesce in this — though  many of its member are furious over the coup, as they rightly call it. The opposition forces may abstain from ramming what they will see as a “victory” too hard down the Brothers’ throats. These “mays” are, as this is written, be unlikely when set against various degrees of escalating conflict. But they are possible.

Yet even if all of that were to move from the conditional to the actual, the outcome would still not be good. Hatred, or at least deep distrust, between the Brotherhood and the opposition groups has increased since the weekend, as deaths — often the outcome of attacks on the Brothers’ offices — mount. These feelings are now absolute.

On the Brothers’ side, there is a settled conviction that the opposition wishes to take from them a legitimate electoral victory of one year ago. On the side of the opposition, there is an equally adamantine belief that the Brothers meant to so change the state and society that the various causes they represent — moderate Islam, liberalism, socialism, secular nationalism — would never again have a chance of, or even a share in, power.

On the street earlier this week, I met an old friend from my years spent in the communist and post-communist bloc. Al Stepan, a political scientist at New York’s Columbia University, is one of the world’s great experts on democratizing — that is, how authoritarian states get out of an authoritarian state, and what becomes of them. He’s also one of the world’s great travellers, and he’s been to the Middle East, and to Egypt, many times in “Arab Spring” years, and before.

In Cairo, protesters challenge Mursi’s rule

John Lloyd
Jul 1, 2013 15:08 UTC

CAIRO — I’ve been in Egypt the past few days to witness the Egyptian people’s indignation at their president, Mohamed Mursi. But where best to watch? On Sunday I joined a march from a metro station in Cairo’s Heliopolis district to the presidential palace. My fellow journalist Abdallah Hassan thought Tahrir Square would be jammed full early, and that the palace would be where the real action — different from what preceded the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak two and a half years ago — would be.

It proved to be, in part. The two or three thousand of us who had debouched from metros in the early afternoon heat swelled to many tens of thousands in the evening. Marchers came from every direction, packing into the wide boulevard before the palace complex. In all of Egypt’s cities, the same scenes were repeated. It was one of the biggest, best coordinated protests of our times, much larger than those that swept out Mubarak. Reuters quoted a military source who estimated as many as 14 million turned out countrywide.

It was a party, a joy ride, an effusion of spirits. It was led by young men who went down a list of rhyming couplets while seated on the shoulders of sweating comrades. “Shout, Mursi! This is your last day!”; “We don’t want the military! We don’t want the Brotherhood!”; “Shave your face and you’re like Mubarak!”; “You spare tire! We’ll send you back to jail!” and “Look and see! The revolution, you sheep!” (They rhyme in Arabic.)

From one tyrant to another

John Lloyd
Jun 28, 2013 20:59 UTC

CAIRO—This week marks the one year anniversary since an Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood and led by Mohamed Mursi was formed.

In that year, the economy has slumped, in part because tourism — a staple of a state that has little to export except an experience of its storied past and fabulous monuments — has all but disappeared. Disconsolate restaurateurs lean on their doorposts, beckoning a foreigner in to empty tables.

Enormous lines that are five or six hours long pile up at gas stations; two power outages, hours long, yesterday afflicted the Cairo suburb where I am presently staying with a friend. Prices are rising even though nearly half of the population is trying to live on two dollars or less a day. The patchwork of groups and forces opposed to President Mursi are assuring everyone that the dire state of the economy, and the lack of a program to address it, are what have solidified ordinary people behind their call for new elections now, three years ahead of the end of Mursi’s term of office.

A humble pope in an august office

John Lloyd
Jun 25, 2013 15:01 UTC

The most potent symbol to date of Pope Francis’ five-month papacy is an empty chair. The chair — a large white throne — was to seat His Holiness in the Vatican this past Saturday. The pope was scheduled to hear a performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, a long-planned event. But minutes before the performance Archbishop Rino Fisichella told the audience that “the Holy Father cannot be present because of an urgent piece of work which cannot be postponed.”

Later, it was reported that Francis had privately dismissed the event with a brusque, “I’m not a Renaissance Prince who listens to music instead of working.” Regardless of whether the quote is apocryphal, the comment expresses well the man’s style. He has declared an end to the Papal Gentlemen, an office which, reformed under Pope Paul VI (1963-78), became an institution whose often aristocratic members officiated at public ceremonies, with their main duty being to meet and greet distinguished visitors. Reports quote the pope’s belief that they were “archaic, useless, even damaging.”

That last may refer to a sex scandal allegedly involving Angelo Balducci, a “Gentleman” who is claimed to have been soliciting male lovers through connections in the Vatican. This, in turn, may be part of the reason why Francis — again, in private — lamented the presence of a “gay mafia” in high places.

Trusting in our new security state

John Lloyd
Jun 19, 2013 15:42 UTC

Big data? No. Vast data, enormous data, unimaginably colossal data ties our world together. Some have said it also ties us down, since departments like the National Security Agency are combing through a part of our huge reservoir for intelligence on foreigners who might threaten the U.S. Yet this behavior is now the status quo, one that will not go away, nor diminish. It’s a doleful one if you deem it an open invitation to 1984-style tyranny, or an exhilarating one if you see a world of ever-expanding knowledge and opportunity.

Regardless, data culture is growing at a stupefying rate. It’s estimated that 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated in the last two years, and the rate itself is increasing. We humans, ordinary people going about our business, are creating most of that data, because we have come to need it to shop, to bank, to access benefits, to be part of a health service, to educate our children, to be secure, to play games, to form and maintain modern friendships, to find partners… in other words, to live in the world.

To live outside of this networked world we would need to live in isolation, growing and hunting your own food without utilities. Or we would have undergone a catastrophe, the kind of thing contemporary dystopian fiction likes to conjure up. Since few of us want to try the first and none of us wish to be victims of the second, we’re stuck in the Net.

Rumors of democracy’s death have been greatly exaggerated

John Lloyd
Jun 11, 2013 17:45 UTC

The End of History and the Last Man is 21 years old this year. The book of that name, by Francis Fukuyama, has, in the view of many, matured badly. Published in 1992, it was much lauded for its view that, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, liberal democracy and free markets were the only long-term politics and economics for the globe.

After 9/11, the disparagements came quickly. The terrorist attacks were held to show that history may have paused, but it had reignited with a vengeance. Clearly, there were other powerful forces in the world than the “inevitable” liberal democracy; sharply different ideologies were alive, well and seeking power by any means.

Fukuyama was seen as a man of the right, though he is quite heterodox: he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, and has recently said that the German social democratic model is better for workers than the U.S. free enterprise one. He has not given up thinking freely, and though he has modified his views, he has not abandoned them.

The special relationship: Putin and Berlusconi

John Lloyd
Jun 8, 2013 04:01 UTC

Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin are seen in a combination file photo.  REUTERS/File

The only other divorcee among Russian leaders before President Vladimir Putin was Czar Peter I, or Peter the Great.

Peter’s first bride, Evdokiya Lopukhina, was chosen for him by his mother — a mistake, at least for her son. Evdokiya, a deeply religious, conservative but strong-willed woman, didn’t like her husband’s modernization drive. With her equally niggly relatives, she so roused Peter’s ire that he secured a divorce and bullied her into a convent.

Reviving a European democracy

John Lloyd
Jun 3, 2013 17:52 UTC

The rich are always with us, and we’ll have more of them soon. A report last week from Boston Consulting Group shows that the global millionaire population is some 13.8 million. That is twice the size of Switzerland, which is, incidentally, where many of them have parked much of their wealth. More will accrue, and more individuals will pass the million-dollar mark. Global private wealth will, says Boston Consulting, grow by almost 5 percent per year over the next five years, reaching $171.2 trillion.

This is what we, who like precision in such matters, call “a lot.” The millionaire population in the UK – the fourth-largest in the world – stands at over half a million households. This is so many that when I reminded a wealthy friend of mine, who was complaining about a personal setback, that she was a millionaire, she snapped, “Isn’t everybody?” Tactless as the response seemed, the rich hobnob with the rich. After a while it becomes the prevailing wisdom.

Within rising global wealth, BCG sees a sign that Western economies are edging upward at last. Indeed, the United States seems to be set for appreciably faster growth. But Europe is stuck in recession; If there is growth, it’s anemic and is happening outside the euro zone.

A taxation conundrum

John Lloyd
May 28, 2013 18:23 UTC

For the giants of Silicon Valley, the fall from freedom’s children to social pariah has been something of a Shakespearean reversal of fortunes. Google, Apple and Facebook might be Lear, Othello and Macbeth in the suddenness and completeness of their fall from a grace that was bequeathed to them by the generations that found their technologies liberating, empowering and even beautiful.

These companies are nothing like the robber barons that were rebuked by the U.S. government a century ago. They are not locking out workers or running sweatshops. On the contrary: They’re hiring people. Led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s advocacy group FWD.us, they are agitating for immigration laws to be loosened so they can hire clever Chinese, Indian and other citizens and pay them lots of money. Those lucky enough to get into their now-sprawling campuses gain access to a kind of gold-plated welfare state where choices of delicious food, health centers and dental clinics are theirs for the using.

The companies say transparency and freedom of speech are at the heart of all they do. Transparency is a Google “Core Value”; Facebook has signed up to the Global Network Initiative, dedicated to advancing freedom of expression to help “shed a spotlight on government practices that restrict expression and seek over-broad requests for user data.”

The European Union’s unending quandary

John Lloyd
May 21, 2013 15:45 UTC

The pace of European disintegration continues to quicken. Recession deepens in the 17-member euro zone; it is now the longest downturn since the currency was launched in 2000. In Italy, a new left-right government, launched on an anti-austerity program, finds the neighborhood more austere than it had hoped. In France, Maurice Levy, boss of the advertising giant Publicis, did a survey showing that northern Europeans – Poles, Germans, Brits – were moderately optimistic while southerners – Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and the French – were deeply pessimistic. France dipped into recession earlier this month, for the third time in four years. The union is pulling apart.

Nothing brings relief. In the Netherlands, a TV show persuaded the country’s deputy finance minister, Frans Weekers, to watch clips of Bulgarians boasting about how they had defrauded his country’s government of welfare benefits. Bulgarians and Romanians, the poorest members of the European Union, will be able to move to any state in the EU next year. What had been presented to the poor as a new freedom is now an imposition for the rich.

Those who have been most enthusiastic for the union now proclaim that it is in grave danger. In an interview earlier this month the financier and philanthropist George Soros said European leaders, in trying to find exit routes from the crisis, have “generated political dynamics that are leading toward the EU’s disintegration.”

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