Information and conflict - case study Israel 2014

I'm about to talk about Israel and Palestine ... Let's hope it doesn't end up like this...

Well, actually, it's not really Palestine and Israel I want to talk about but the use of information and communications in war. 

There has been something different about the coverage of Israel's latest offensive against Gaza. Israel is usually understood to be a master at controlling the narrative. But, something has changed. You could argue that in previous conflicts Israel has killed civilians, including children and aid workers. You could also argue that there have been demonstrations against Israel's use of force before, or that Israelis and Jews around the world have stood against the actions of the government in other cases. 2014, however, will be remembered as the year that Israel lost the narrative wars. Some have said to me that a bit of bad coverage in some outlets and the recalling of the ambassador of Brazil account for little. But I bet Israeli policy makers see it differently. For them, losing public support for their actions in Western Europe and North America has a direct, real-world impact.  

Israel's predicament has been picked up the mainstream press:

Channel 4 News reporter Paul Mason, makes some very good observations from a reporter's perspective - and bear in mind that for reporters, social media being used to report and consume news, is a sort of professional competitor:

- Twitter provides an unfiltered, alternative news source - one that young Americans trust more than traditional networks

- Journalists are reporting via tweets from inside Gaza - these comments, pictures etc are not filtered by editors 

- The collective assessment of information that happens via social media makes it difficult for governments to provide their own gloss on events and makes it easier to quickly spot wrong information

- It is harder for ordinary members of the public to avoid the human tragedy of a violent event when friends and family are flooding your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc timelines  

New York Magazine outlines how this has affected the way audiences see the conflict:

"I think the way the last two weeks have unfolded in the Western media has made it more difficult for Americans not personally invested in the conflict to simply assume that the Israelis are necessarily right. There is a reason that apolitical celebrities like Dwight Howard and Rihanna were tweeting out messages of support for Palestine. They, like the rest of us, are seeing the Palestinians a little bit less as demagogues and terrorists and a little bit more as they see themselves, as ordinary people living in often impossible circumstances."

I think it is highly probable that this conflict will be studied by information operations, strategic communications and political communications practitioners in the future. Israel is losing the media war largely because the environment (technology, Western popular exposure to the Middle East, the media industry etc) has changed. Similar factors to those that are upending the news industry are making it difficult for those who developed tactics for influencing it to carry on as before. Whereas in the past, it might have been enough to influence a few gatekeepers (eg. correspondents, editors, proprietors), today there are few obvious individuals to influence.

However, in a recent report about the Syrian conflict and social media, Marc Lynch made the point that gatekeepers hadn't been removed altogether, only that they had been replaced by informal networks that collect and curate information. He also raised the point that news consumers tend to gravitate to those sources of information that they already agree with - which calls into question thoughts that what we are seeing is a movement towards the democratisation of information and therefore a more just and equitable outcome. 

In the specific example of Israel; I'm guessing that the reaction we are seeing is a result of a number of factors, including those already mentioned in the articles I've linked to above. But one that hasn't been mentioned is how the new environment affects Israel's existing strategy. I'd have to admit I'd be guessing at what Israel's outreach strategy would be, but having seen the output I would say that it broadly aimed at creating the overall impression amongst mainstream Western audiences (ie. not the religious right) that Israel and its society is familiar, comfortable and friendly (i.e. culturally and politically similar), but to avoid or downplay too much focus on the conflict with Palestinians.  

If this strategy is undermined every time there is a similar conflict, Israel will have to reassess its actions in the future. However, for Palestinians to turn this coverage into concrete actions that improve the lives of the population of Gaza, the Hamas and PLO leadership will need to take political steps on the back of the coverage. 

The logic of influence in Syria

Fred Kaplan wrote in a recent Slate article on how events in Syria may play out:

"Even if our largesse did buy us influence, that doesn’t mean we’re influencing the right people."

The context of Kaplan's comments in based around a New York Times report that CIA agents are helping provide weapons to Syrian opposition fighters.

The whole idea of providing weapons to rebels in the hope of undermining an opponent and influencing the outcome of the struggle is probably older than war itself. But that doesn't mean it works. (In fact, if anyone has done a study on how often it deosn't work, Londonstani would be very interested in reading it). 

In this day and age, Londonstani was kinda hoping we'd moved past the whole "take me to your leader" approach and could come up with something that combines the best of politics, diplomacy and communications. Maybe, just maybe, the people to reach out to here aren't warlords, but the average Syrian. After all, the warlords are going to be seeking constituencies to wield power on behalf of in the post-Assad Syria. So, whatever happens, it's the Syrian people who will set the frame in which the future of their country is cast - whether good or bad. 

If there are international bodies out there putting together contingency plans, Londonstani's requests would be:

1 - Please do lots of research

2 - Please read your research

3 - Please don't put all you eggs in baskets owned by opportunistic gangsters (Syria has many)

"Running the country? Pah, easy"

Londonstani, as readers of this blog know, used to live in Cairo. And while there, he'd often wonder how it is that street cafes can be run like well-oiled machines, while the country was so badly run.

Well, in the new Egypt, a cafe owner has decided its time to put his awesome management skills at the disposal of his country.

"I met another of the candidates, Farghal Abu-Deif Atiya, holding court at his cafe in a poor neighbourhood.

"It is called the Freedom Club Cafe but he hopes soon to rename it the Presidential Cafe when he is successful.

"If I can run my cafe efficiently, why not Egypt - indeed the world?" he says.

(read Jon Leyne of the BBC's article on the hundreds of candidates running for election for the full story)

Before you totally dismiss this guy, it's worth remembering that in Pakistan, Imran Khan is running for election (and getting masses of support) while regularly citing his achievements as a former captain of the national cricket team.

Imran Khan on the politics of culture

Reading Imran Khan lay out his feelings towards Pakistan's history of colonialism in Jason Burke's article in the Observer today, Londonstani couldn't help wonder whether the dynamic he describes is felt as universally as he suggests.

"Khan says he first became aware of the effects of colonialism as a teenager. "My first shock was going from Aitchison to play for Lahore. The boys from the Urdu [local language] schools laughed at me… Then in England we had been trained to be English public schoolboys, which we were not. Hence the inferiority complex. Because we were not and could never be the thing we were trying to be."

Even the memory agitates him. "I saw the elite [in Pakistan] who were superior because they were more westernised. I used to hear that colonialism was about building roads, railways etc… but that's all bullshit. It kills your self-esteem. The elite become a cheap imitation of the coloniser."

Londonstani does agree that the feeling of inferiority is real and does propel people to attempt to exorcise themselves of the stigma in different ways. There was a time in South Asia when "aping" Western habits, dress and modes of living was seen as a way to be equal (As Londonstani has seen in his great grandfather's memoirs). When, as Imran suggests, the acquired habits didn't lead to acceptance on equal terms, later generations came to vilify those same Western habits and idolise the "indigenous".

It's always struck Londonstani as odd that its often the wealthy (or upper middle class) in post colonial countries in the Middle East and South Asia and Muslims in Western countries that almost fetishise an imagined sense of the "pure" and "original". In this world view, "Western" or "modern" norms, vices or "problems" include (but aren't limited to) dysfunctional families, drug or alcohol use, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, consumerism and greed. As if somehow none of these things existed in 1,400 years of Muslim civilisation from Morocco to Malaysia.

The result is that those from formerly colonialised countries either idolise or vilify their own society and the civilisation that used to rule them. Neither the West nor their own societies are seen for what they are; good and bad.

However, this unhealthy relationship is based on a power dynamic. The former coloniser needs to be seen as powerful and influential. Therefore, worthy of emulation or vilification. What happens when the goal posts change?

The reason Londonstani brings this up in the context of Jason's article is that he mentions Imran Khan turning 60. The former cricketer is seen as amongst Pakistan's "younger" politicians. In reality, Imran Khan's age means that his world view is fashioned by an experience most Pakistanis will not have lived through. 66 percent of Pakistanis are under 30. Colonialism definitely does not loom as large for them.

While it's true that Western fashion, language and habits are seen as status symbols across various levels of Pakistani society, no longer are they "English" cultural markers. What makes you "cool" in Pakistan is increasingly likely to be the trends of a globalised youth culture. Some of it might be Western in origin, but a lot of it is going to be filtered through Chinese, Indian, American or Arab tastes.

To get out of this nasty little vicious circle Imran Khan needs to figure out how in the future Pakistani youth culture will be contributing to the global mix. A plan to unleash Pakistani creativity on the world is what Londonstani wants to hear from a man who plans to be the country's future leader. What he doesn't want to hear is a man who courts the country's young sounding like the old guy at your grandmother's house on Eid that everyone avoids.

Democracy promotion - not-so-soft power

Is democracy promotion "soft power"? Over at Foreign Policy, Christian Caryl makes the very important point that, actually, no.

"We Americans tend to see promoting democracy in other societies as a gentle, win-win, do-gooding exercise. What we tend to forget, though, is that introducing democratic institutions into previously authoritarian societies means changing the structure of power. And we should hardly expect those who are losing power to step aside quietly. Those catchwords so favored by the humanitarians may sound harmless, but in certain quarters they have explosive force. "Transparency" is a curse to the intriguer in the shadows. "Accountability" is a nightmare for the unelected autocrat. And "good governance" fills the corrupt official with dread."

Like Caryl, Londonstani also believes that this sort of thing is very worth doing. But lets be clear that in terms of difficulty and effect, it's in no way the easier option.

Independence, partition and devo max - the narratives of separation

Say "Independence for Scotland" to many people across the English-speaking* world and you can be quietly confident that the image forming their minds' eye looks something like this: -

There is a reason for this. Whether we like it or not; where facts fail, narratives succeed. And at no time are narratives more important as when nations are seeking to turn a hazy idea of sovereignty and self determination into a living, breathing state with institutions, laws and most importantly, a social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

Since the pro-independence Scottish National Party became the largest in Scotland's parliament following the 2011 election, the issue of independence for Scotland has emerged as a plausible eventuality.

Although the United Kingdom is an old and established democracy and state, competing regional indentities are still a very raw reality.

So, amongst all the discussion about political points and legalese, Londonstani was interested to read Anthony Barnett's article over at Open Democracy where, quoting Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph, he warns of the cost of defending the union of united kingdoms if the price was a "descent into mean squabbles and brutal negativity".

Brogan argues that the ruling Tory party's approach to campaigning against Scottish independence in a future referendum should not be an all-out onslaught that would run the risk of coming across as anti-Scottish. Part of his justification was the need to deal with the post-referendum reality, whatever it may be.

"His [Prime Minister David Cameron] reticence is required not because it will deprive Mr Salmond of something to complain about, but because he must reserve himself for the consequences of the vote. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will have to be a renegotiation of the terms between Scotland and the rest of the Union. Whether Scotland chooses independence or opts to remain, there must follow a detailed re-balancing of the political and financial relationship. Be it the “devo-max” Mr Salmond speaks of, or some other arrangement, Mr Cameron must be in a position to negotiate as a respected equal after Scotland has decided."

This sounds like the right way to go about the legally tricky and emotional charged process of decoupling communities with long, close (and often acrimonious) history.

A good example of when this can go wrong is painfully evident in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan scholars such as Stephen Cohen have noted that the idea of Pakistan was born out of an existential fear amongst the Muslim population of British-ruled India. In fact, Nicholas Schmidle's book about Pakistan takes its title from a pamphlet written in 1933 by a Indian Muslim worrying about the future of his community in a free India: To Live or to Perish Forever.

One version of events suggests that the men who carved India and Pakistan out of British India originally planned for a united India. But when they couldn't agree on a formulation that Muslim leaders felt safeguarded their community, the narrative of a separate Muslim land for a separate Muslim nation was born. And to this day, the effects of that narrative makes its presence felt on a global level.

Londonstani can't think of a better historical illustration of the power of narratives to change realities than Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, the cultural capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

This once magnificent building, built by the first avowed atheist member of the British parliament at the turn of the 20th century, played a central role in the founding and growth of the political party that rules India today.

Back in today's Britain, where Anthony Barnett seems to ask why the ethnicities that make up the UK couldn't have their own countries and yet live together happily, Londonstani wonders whether its time to consider a new narrative of belonging for the UK. One that doesn't focus on the outmoded concept of "blood and soil" but instead revolves around whether people share a mutual dependency within interdependent cultures.

* In Londonstani's experience, Braveheart was massively popular in the Arabic-speaking Middle East - Can't imagine why.

Pakistan's democracy burden

Zafar Hilaly is a former Pakistani ambassador whose articles Londonstani has long enjoyed reading. From his writings Amb. Hilaly seems to embody some of the best traits of Pakistan's proud diplomatic corps. He's a staunch supporter of the rule of law, and a vocal critic of the destruction of Pakistan's institutions. In Londonstani's mental map of Pakistan's comment-sphere, Amb. Hilaly is definitely not in the pro-military camp. 

So, it was a surprise to see Amb. Hilaly call for the removal of the present government. Londonstani might not agree with Amb. Hilaly's final analysis, but it is a measure of how badly this government has done its job that people like the ambassador would rather have the military and/or judiciary remove it than to have it complete its last few months in power.

"Watching the prime minister pass by in a seventy-car cavalcade even as local investors flee; foreign investments dry up; hunger drives families to suicide and despair takes hold is a cathartic experience. Hence, even if dispatching the government before it has completed its term harms democracy and means that we can’t get to spew criticism at the regime, so be it. The risk is worth taking. As for the public, it is more than ready to trade democracy for bread, a modicum of jobs and a sliver of hope. They’ve had it up to their gills with democracy. All that democracy does is ‘to substitute election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."

How much misgovernance will Pakistanis tolerate for the promise of eventual democratic progress? Amb. Hilaly for one has found his limit.

Read the whole article here.

Egypt's new parliament

If you're interested in the Middle East, you need to read Marc Lynch's comment over at Foreign Policy on the new Egyptian parliament:

"There are many problems with the new Parliament and the political process which created it.  But the common dismissal of the Parliament by many activists is mistaken.  For one, the near complete wipeout of former regime, ex-NDP candidates -- the fullul -- doesn't get nearly enough attention.  Before the elections, most people expected the Parliament to be split between the Muslim Brotherhood and rebranded former regime elements.  Instead, the fullul lost badly despite lavish spending and well-organized campaigns.  Their failure should be seen as a major accomplishment of the revolution, and a vindication of the rejection of the old regime by the vast majority of the Egyptian population.  The fact is that there is now a popularly elected Parliament, recognized as legitimate by the SCAF, which is almost completely devoid of figures from the old NDP elite.  That's an amazing achievement."

What happens in Egypt will impact how the Middle East develops once the revolutionary dust settles. Riots, violence, resistance against state violence are always going to get news coverage, but if there's one place where the details of the political back and forth really do have an impact, it's Egypt.

Ministry of You-Can't-Make-This-Up

After boring and horrifying Pakistanis in equal measure, the "memogate scandal", took a turn for the absurd and downright embarrassing a couple of days ago. 

It turns out Mansoor Ijaz, the guy at the centre of the scandal, who might be coming to Pakistan to testify, played the part of a  comentator in a 2004 music video that featured naked female wrestlers.

(Sorry mum) But the video is here. Yes, you just couldn't make this stuff up.

And the best Pakistani comment on the whole sad debacle (remember, the memo was totally pointless):

"A businessman from Lahore, who wishes to stay anonymous, thinks Mansoor Ijaz’s wife is the coolest woman on the planet. “OMG! There is a woman out there who wants her husband to partake in such activities and was there by his side all the way through. She is definitely a keeper.”

(Actually, there's a whole bunch of hilarious comments in Tazeen's article for the Express. Read it here)

Not the front page

.. more like page 4 or 5. Maybe even the back page.

Front-page news in Pakistan is often boring. Seriously, there comes a point when you just want to be told if a coup has actually happened. Everything else will be wrapping tomorrow's nans.

Like many other places in the world, news coverage in Pakistan often has more to do with the political leanings of the people who own the outlets than it has to do with actual, legitimate interest or news worthiness.


Whereas in those other parts of the world, the really interesting stuff gets ignored or repressed, in Pakistan it just appears buried in local news or the comment section. So, it was with great interest that Londonstani read Umar Cheema's article about the tussle between the old and new faces in Imran Khan's PTI party.

"Imran Khan-led PTI has accepted political heavyweights in bulk, majority of them constituting the lot of people who found space shrinking for them elsewhere. Although their decision of joining has given a boost to the PTI, the political baggage they carry along is something hard to defend within and outside the party."

Read the article in English-language daily, The News, here:

The reason this is interesting rests on Imran Khan's promises of a new politics. Many observers have previously said that Imran is setting himself up for a fall if he presents himself as some sort of magic bullet cure for all of Pakistan's problems. As Pakistan scholar and former foreign correspondent Anatol Levin pointed out recently;

"The truth is that Pakistani politics revolves in large part around politicians' extraction of resources from the state by means of corruption, and their distribution to those politicians' followers through patronage. Radically changing this would mean gutting the existing Pakistani political system like a fish. Nor is it at all certain how popular the process would really be with most Pakistanis."

Imran has become something of a saviour-in-waiting for many Pakistanis, particularly the young, which is understandable but also a little scary. Pakistan's problems are going to need concerted action by many, many people over a number of years. There are no quick-fix solutions of the sort favoured by taxi drivers all over the globe. The answer for Pakistan lies in developing a new political culture.

However, it seems as though Imran's political party is in many ways business as usual.

Cheema describes Imran Khan's reaction to a resolution pushed by long-time party members wary of the new big wigs coming on board; "As the reading was done, nobody stood up to oppose but Imran Khan. 'The resolution stands rejected,' he said, explaining that he did not want to cause any embarrassment to the new comers."

No consensus, debate or compromise, just the clunking fist.

If you're new to the Imran Khan phenomenon, a good place to start is this post on the Cafe Pyala blog:

Pakistan is indeed, as he hammers home again and again, saddled with a parasitic elite that has insisted on usurping, keeping and abusing power to the detriment of the many hovering around the poverty line; but his reductionist identification of them as people who have strayed from the one faith and become 'westernized' is sadly flawed. The powerful elite of which he speaks include the shallu-wearing landlords and industrialists that are now part of his movement for justice. They can also wear beards, uniforms and burqas as well as jeans and ape Saudi Arabia as well as Western pop culture, but apparently that isn't quite as bad."

Read the whole thing here.

Buried in the corner of another English daily, The Express Tribune, was a story illustrating that there are politicians who do "get it".

One is Marvi Memon, an activist and member of Pakistan's People's Assembly, who has launched a new political party in the southern Sindh province.

“Sindh has unfortunately been blessed with a lot of political parties,” she [Marvi] said. “But the mindset – the ‘bothaar’ (feudal) – exists in a sector in-charge or in an SHO [local officials] or feudal. These are old politics.” The ‘new politics’ is good governance, rule of law and institution building."

Another politician, Mehtab Rashidi, sounded a pretty circumspect tone about what the head of the party would need to accomplish.

“Let’s say a few hundred thousand show up – and I’m being optimistic (at estimating that),” she says. “But what next? That’s a big question mark.” She points out what many people demand of anyone eyeing an election: “He has to work on the roadmap. What type of change? How can you change the mindset overnight or in weeks? What happens if early elections are called – is he prepared for that? He has to do a lot.”

This all reminds Londonstani of Stephen Cohen's comments last week in the Express Tribune (weekend magazine, this time) that it's not clear how, but Pakistan is bound to change. 

Bangladesh foils coup attempt

Londonstani knows little about Bangladesh, but read reports about the failed Islamist military coup with some interest. 

"Military spokesman Masud Razzaq said in a statement that the attempt had been thwarted by the "whole-hearted efforts of army soldiers ... He said the officers planning the coup were in active military service and had "extreme religious views".

Recently murdered Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad talked in his last book Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban about armed Islamist groups recruiting inside Bangladesh in the 1990s. While the reports on this latest coup point out that military revolts are not uncommon in Bangladesh.

"Bangladesh, a parliamentary democracy since 1990, has witnessed two presidents slain in military coups and 19 other failed coup attempts."

There's little further information about the "extreme religious views" angle, and Londonstani is not qualified to hypothosise, but it's not hard to find information on the kind of groups operating in Bangladesh and how they fit in to the wider regional context. 

Amnesty - behind the lines in the Arab Spring

Amnesty released a report looking at the popular uprisings against oppressive rule in the Middle East (let's not forget Iran had an uprising too) aka Arab Spring.

The report - Year of Rebellion, The State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - was released accompanied by a statement from Amnesty which makes some good points:

With few exceptions, governments have failed to recognize that everything has changed,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s interim Middle East and North Africa Director. “The protest movements across the region, led in many cases by young people and with women playing central roles, have proved astonishingly resilient in the face of sometimes staggering repression.”

But what has been striking about the last year has been that – with some exceptions – change has largely been achieved through the efforts of local people coming onto the streets, not the influence and involvement of foreign powers.

Amnesty, true to its human-rights-first agenda, makes the following recommendations:

Reform security forces

Ensure laws comply with international standards

Reform the justice system

End Torture and other ill-treatment

End incommunicado detention

Uphold the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression

Release prisoners of conscience

End enforced disappearances

End impunity


Now, you might be reading this thinking, "Yeah, that's the typical unrealistic, bleeding heart, tree-hugger, humanitarian, pie in the sky wish list that I'd expect from a bunch of crusties (thanks to the mayor of London for the phrase)". But, you'd be mistaken.

Amnesty's demands to Arab governments are always pretty much the same, which is the point. Slowly and steadily, Amnesty and other groups like it, have advanced these aims through contact with civil society groups. Londonstani doesn't think it's too much of a stretch to say that, in the end, engagement and capacity building with activists on the ground had a much bigger impact than the decades of government-level engagement with the former regimes carried out by Western governments. Which went a little something like this:

"please repeal your illegal emergency laws. 'No', you say? OK then."

"We will cut your aid if you keep jailing democracy activists. Not really!"

"We will be angry if you blatantly rig elections. What's that you say? Your people are a bit thick and naturally disposed to voting in terrorists? Ok, fine, but at least try and be a bit subtle about it."

What is that you are telling your people as you accept huge amounts of money from us? That we are plotting to overthrow you and let the Israelis fly the Star of David over the pyramids? Naa..Naaa. Naaa.. Can't hear yoooou...Naa Naaa"

Yup, human rights activists get regime change done. Who'd have thunk it. Nuff said.


* Wanna know what was going through the minds of your average way-past retirement age Egyptian official while they were having their terminally boring meetings with Western officials? This...

Diane Abbot, twitter and.... really?

UK political types were transfixed last week by a story about a black MP who apparently said something racist on twitter. From the Guardian:

"The row began when [Diane] Abbott, who has more than 26,000 Twitter followers, became involved in a discussion with Bim Adewunmi, triggered by the Stephen Lawrence case, on Wednesday.

Adewunmi said she objected to the way in which the term the "black community" was used as a generalisation.

Abbott responded with a series of messages. "I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a 'divide and rule' agenda," she said. Then she added: "White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism."

After which, everyone got very worked up and lots of articles and blog posts etc were written while important people called on her to resign.

You might have missed it there, but apparently, someone lost their life in a racist murder. The only point that Londonstani can see as mattering in all this is the one made by Harmit Athwal at Open Democracy:

"Stephen Lawrence was a young black student stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack by five or six white youths in south London in April 1993. That his murderers have gone unpunished for so long, and that three or four still remain free, was not for lack of evidence but due to a police investigation hobbled by institutional racism and corruption...

"...the hideous fact is that since Stephen Lawrence's death, at least ninety-six people have lost their lives to racial violence — an average of five per year."

The P-word that everyone's doing

Interesting article by Clyde Prestowitz over at Foreign Policy continuing with the "economics of defence" and the rise of China theme by drawing attention to a little-noticed strategy that came out at about the same time as the defence guidance.

The commerce department's report on US competiveness, says Prestowitz, misses significant hindarances to US trade with emerging countries:

"At the moment, four great incentives are continuing to pull the production and provision of tradable goods and services out of the United States. These are foreign currency manipulation that overvalues the dollar, subsidization by many foreign governments of the offshoring of U.S. production capacity, the "buy national" policies and attitudes of many governments that force U.S. companies (and the corporations of other countries) to produce in a particular country if they want to sell there, and the subsidization of and risk reduction for capital investment by state-owned or indigenous private companies in designated "strategic" or "pillar" industries by a number of foreign governments. As long as the report doesn't even mention these elements, let alone address them, there is no hope for a shift in the downward arching American economic, industrial, and technological trajectory."

For the UK, trading with the rest of the world is even more important to the country's well being (the UK doesn't have the US's huge internal market). MP Kwasi Kwarteng, who has a Cambridge doctorate in economic history, offered this take a while ago on government's role in promoting manufacturing and trade. Acknowledging that it's a little surprising to hear a Conservative MP take positively about government support for the private sector, Kwarteng ends with this.

"Of course, we can’t mention the P-word, Protection, in polite company, but everyone is doing it. They always have. Once we recognise this, we realise that it makes sense to harness our excellent universities and scientists and our manufacturing traditions to preserve and grow our industrial base. Nothing could be more conservative than that." - Flashman would be proud!

As ever, Londonstani finds it difficult to resist a little econ geekery

"Egypt smells of paint!"

Really, really good article in the Daily Beast looking at Suzanne Mubarak, who it paints as the force behind the old dictator's throne.

Londonstani is particularly gratified to see discussion of something he and his friends used to talk about when he worked in Cairo. "The Mubarak's", the joke went, "think the world smells of fresh paint."

"Especially in her later years, Suzanne observed Cairo’s garbage-strewn streets through a gilded peephole. For her, walls were scrubbed, flowers planted, grass grown, Egyptians bribed to smile. If you were part of the royal convoy, Cairo was clean and Egyptians were happy."

Londonstani can attest that when Gamal Mubarak visited his office, the entire building got a makeover. When the president and his wife made the drive to parliament, flowers were planted on the sides of the road. Only to be dug up again after they passed.

So it seems it always is after a dictator falls, everyone suddenly has that 'Emperors New Clothes' moment. "How did they get away with it for so long?", "Why did the international community support them?" etc etc.

One thing that Londonstani suspects is being covered in the Egyptian Arabic press and blogs (the guys at might be able to comment on that), but not so far in Western media, is how the Mubarak regime convinced ordinary Egyptians to support them.

There was nothing mediocre about the way the regime exploited Egyptians' own sense of pride and linked it to the figure of Mubarak through the clever use of media, the state education system and the manipulation of Egypt's recent history.

Egyptians older and far savvier than Londonstani have pointed out that the Mubarak branding machine was far more successful than that of his republican predecessors. Pre-2003, Mubarak faced a lot less direct criticism than Sadat or even Nasser, the Pan-Arab hero.

Mediocre they might have been, but they were doing something right (relatively speaking).

Anyway, read the whole article and ponder where you would lay the blame for the world's toleration of Egypt's three-decade long catastrophe.

* Major big up to Mandy Fahmy credited at the bottom of the article, who Londonstani has no doubt is responsible for securing the awesome sources.

Pakistan's youth solution

Common sense suggests that Pakistan's problem's are not about to solved by a saviour who gathers them all up squashes them into a little (cricket?) ball shape and hurls them into the sun. Making things better is going to take groups of people with new ideas and approaches, supported by similarly minded people with the resources, taking legitimacy from an even bigger group of people who support what they are doing.

Huma Yusuf does a great job on the IHT's Latitude blog of illustrating that the best bet for change in Pakistan is the country's young.

"An exciting shift is now under way in Pakistan: the young are becoming politically engaged. In coffee shops, beauty salons and workplaces, instead of gossiping or deconstructing the latest televised drama, youngsters are arguing about the merits of various politicians. As a journalist, I can’t walk into a social gathering without getting grilled by my peers and their younger siblings about this policy or that. Older Pakistanis who have long bemoaned the apathy of the country’s educated, middle-class youth are sighing in relief at this newfound activism. As one elderly family friend put it, “Your lot has finally woken up.”"

Huma makes the point that Imran Khan has benefited from (or perhaps sparked) this awakening of interest among the young, but this is part of a bigger trend.

"Several social media sites have hosted online voter-registration drives for the 2013 general elections. Many of these are not affiliated with any political party; they are simply seeking to boost youth participation at the polls. Pakistan’s mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (P.M.L.N.), are launching youth-oriented campaigns and showcasing a new generation of politicians. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, of the P.P.P., is encouraging private media outlets to emphasize youth-oriented programming. The opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who heads the P.M.L.N., recently drafted a new strategy to revamp his party’s Facebook presence and, in a bid to entice young voters, promised to distribute 300,000 laptops to students if he is elected."

Pakistan is a young country with a tumultuous history, and as such the era you were born into has a big impact on your outlook to life, culture, your view of the outside world and politics.

What Londonstani finds really interesting about all this is that there is evidence to suggest Pakistan's under 35 year old majority approach life in a very different way to their elders. The impact of social media, mass communication and migrations all have their place, but there is an even more elemental level to this. For examle, someone who grew up being told to fear a Hindu-dominated Alll-India government will approach things differently to someone who's lived their whole life secure in the "Muslimness" of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Londonstani's work recently involved researching the views of Pakistani young people. The picture that emerged was of a huge body of people who are more confident in their identities as Pakistanis, less interested in ethnic backgrounds, more questioning of received logic, less fearful of India and much more keen on travel and engagement with the outside world. The study was limited and much more work should be done looking at this area, but, for Londonstani, it was well summed up by one of the interviewees:

"The most influential person in my life? Well, I should say my father. But, he often talks very forcefully about a subject and then I look online or ask my friends and find out he doesn't have that much information."

The reality is that life in Pakistan at all levels is dominated by men who are typically over 45 (this, of course, includes Imran). Whether military, religious ideologues, feudal landlords, business moguls or media magnates, they do things in very similar, patriarchal ways. The political parties' scramble to get young people involved is an effort to direct the inevitable trend. (The young generation the parties are promoting are often sons and daughters of the leaders).

Huma makes the point that she is not talking about a Pakistani version of the Arab Spring; "Unlike their counterparts in the Arab world, young Pakistanis are less inspired by revolutionary rhetoric than in producing results through the existing system. They are demanding issue-based politics."

This in itself is a revolution.

If you want to see what sort of people Huma is talking about, watch Al Jazeera's documentary on Ali Abbas Zaidi:

And while you're at it, check out rapper Adil Omar:

Oh, and of course Co-Ven


** oops, I wrongly cited the writer of the original piece as Huma Imtiaz when it was in fact Huma Yusuf. This has been fixed apols to both Humas.

Pakistan's Imran dilemma

If you follow Pakistan with any degree of interest, chances are you've heard a lot about Imran Khan. If the press coverage is to be believed, the former cricket captain carries the hopes of the entire nation - particularly the young (who form the majority of the population) - on his shoulders.

There's little doubt that there is something different about the support Imran is getting. In Pakistan, votes are usually bought (one way or another), so it is rare to see a politician earning genuine support. But more than that, the buzz building up around Imran would be rare in any political arena, anywhere in the world. In the words of US political campaign strategists, Imran is transitioning from "politician" to "movement".

But don't let the likes of this cloying cinematic tribute

lead you to think that Pakistanis are waiting in frenzied awe to be led by "the Kaptaan".

Some of the best analysis of Imran's plans and fortunes has been done by Pakistani writers and bloggers. (The FT's editor in comparison couldn't resist trading in a proper interview for the chance of playing an over against one of the world's best fast bowlers)

The most popular criticism levelled against Imran by observers in Pakistan (and a fair few abroad) is that his populist stance panders to the fundamentalist fringe.

Let Ahsan Butt at Five Rupees spell it out:

"...allow me to say that Imran’s view on foreign policy, and in particular the war against the Taliban, are legitimately dangerous. His views completely miss the point of what the threat is, where the threat is coming from, and what can be done about it."

Observers and friends of Pakistan in the West find it difficult to imagine Imran - who himself was once roughed up by Islamist student thugs - could be sympathetic to right-wing, reactionary politics. If the observers in question happen to be over 30 and from a cricket-playing nation, the idea that Oxford-educated, "playboy Imran" is courting people whose idea of Pakistan's best interests involves wars with India and the United States produces a serious bout of cognitive dissonance.

It could be argued that politicians in Pakistan think that looking the other way to a bit of sabre rattling is little different to US politicians saying silly things to avoid looking "soft on national security". However, over at Pak Tea House  Yasser Hamdani, a supporter of Imran's Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf party (PTI), articulates the fear of many that this rightwing bent of mind translates to a position on the wrong side of THE core issue in Pakistani politics; the status of the military.

"...I feel threatened rather by a certain line of thinking – a line of thinking that still believes that the military has a role to play in Pakistani politics, that ISI and GHQ should hold a veto against corrupt politicians, and that some how the Pakistan Army is defender of some arbitrary ideological frontier of the country.  Sadly many of our fellow travellers in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also subscribe to this view."

Hamdani's is a cry for Pakistan's best political prospect to affirm the principle upon which he is building up the hopes of millions. For Hamdani, as for many Pakistanis concerned about the future of their country, a brighter tomorrow is not possible as long as the present alignment of power exists.

"The truth is that so long as this mindset prevails, no political leader no matter how well intentioned or honest will be able to dent the systemic failure which affects the democratic process in this country."

Nasir Jamal, writing for the impressive Herald magazine, takes the PTI and Imran to task for failure to grapple with any deep thought on the problems facing Pakistan.

Nasir quotes the party's secretary general, Dr. Arif Alv as saying, “Our agenda is the agenda of Pakistan. It is all in the newspapers. Everybody knows what the issues are."

"At a mundane level, why is PTI so reluctant to provide details of its programme?" asks Nasir.

Alvi responds, “We are not releasing the details because we do not want others to steal our programme, cut it and paste it as their own.”

Really? Cut and paste?

Nasir goes on to sketch out why the simple, generalised auntie-uncle logic* doesn't address Pakistan's serious issues.

Running with the secretary general's newspapers reference, Nasir makes the point that "Khan’s answers to complex economic, political, social and strategic problems seem to come straight from the opinions and editorials pages of newspapers and television talk shows. He wants to make Pakistanan energy-surplus and self-reliant economy by exploiting the country’s natural resources. That these natural resources require money, technology and elaborate political, administrative and environmental measures does not seem to matter."

Nasir points to the promise of solving the energy crisis as an example, "For instance, most of Pakistan’s natural gas and coal reserves happen to be in Balochistan and Sindh and after the 18th amendment to the constitution no federal government can extract and use them without the consent of the provincial governments. Does Khan propose to bypass such constitutional niceties, risking further distrust between the provinces and the centre or will he be willing to take the long and painful route of creating a national consensus on how to extract and use these natural resources for the common good of the country?"

To press the point home, Nasir goes on to complain about Imran's habit of quoting statistics and figures that seem to be plucked from thin air and using them to back up impressive sounding claims built on flimsy logic. 

He quotes Imran as saying; "Pakistan loses 3,000 billion rupees (about $33 billion) annually to corruption and in unpaid taxes; if we succeed in stopping this loss (to the revenue) we can turn the economy around, woo fresh investment and achieve self-reliance."

Nasir adds, "In an undocumented economy like Pakistan, it is difficult to say if his statistics are authentic but even if they are correct, doing something about them will help Pakistan only balance its budget — something that may be one of the many factors in an economic turnaround but cannot on its own put the economy on the right track. What about current account deficit, foreign loans, international and regional trade and, most importantly, a level playing field and an enabling environment?"

(As a former Reuters reporter, Londonstani can't resist a bit of rigorous economics)

Perhaps most worryingly, and related to the core problem of the military's role in the country, Nasir suggests Imran has a problem with the concept of causality:

"Khan pledged to remove the sense of alienation among the Baloch but did not say anything on the role of the military and bureaucratic establishment in creating this alienation, just as he did not touch the civil-military relations which lie at the core of many political crises that Pakistan has faced in the recent past."

But let's say Imran develops some serious policies as the elections start rolling round, the next stumbling block, says former ambassador Zafar Hilaly, is getting Pakistani officialdom to turn policies into actions.

"the one instrument for implementing policy, the civil services, is in complete disarray. Just about every human ill afflicts them. Corruption and “speed money” and people who delight in doing nothing and to say “nothing can be done” abound... The bureaucrats will resist change and innovation. They will find “a difficulty for every solution” and they know how to take “good ideas and then quietly strangle them to death... Merely tweaking the way the bureaucracy works will not do."

But despite all the gaps and questions, there's a deep desire welling up in Pakistan for Imran Khan to take the reins of the country. Hilaly sums up the desperation from which it springs:

" our peculiar circumstances Imran offers a better prospect than the others. To the desperate masses he brings hope and, even if his performance falls short... in the end we have to make a choice based on what we have on offer and backing Imran Khan is a risk I am prepared to take."

When Imran and his party colleagues are assessing their political fortunes, it would serve them well to remember that the support he is building is the thin wedge of a deep well of despair. Maybe soon, Pakistan's least-worst hope needs to stop trying to be all things to all Pakistanis. Pakistan has a long way to go and maybe Imran can push it in the right direction, but that won't happen until he answers this fundamental question posed by his own supporter:

"You cannot speak of a progressive Pakistan and also send a note to Jammat-ud-Dawa (the suspected LeT front) rally in Lahore. You cannot, on the one hand, rightly condemn Mumtaz Qadri (Salmaan Taseer's killer) and then have Ejaz Chaudhry (a party official) represent you at the free Qadri rally. Imran Khan, please choose, so that we may also not be under illusions about anything."

*"auntie-uncle logic" is Pakistan's equivalent to the UK's "taxi driver logic". Both are refined arts that rest on the proponent's ability to offer opinions in a manner that is inversely related to their lack of knowledge. The Pakistani version of this all too popular art form derives its name from the actions of older relatives - often the most advanced practioners.

The Salafi Cartoon Network

If you are a good, conscientious follower of world events, you are probably wondering about these "Salafis" that everyone keeps saying are gaining popularity across the Middle East.

In which case, you could do much worse than spend a few minutes reading Sarah Topol's Egypt's Salafi Surge.

"While the Brotherhood wants to talk about its plans to create new jobs, the Salafis will try to focus the debate in parliament on public social virtues, like headscarves, religious idolatry, and banning alcohol. The Brotherhood is also far more concerned with increasing the powers of parliament and sending the Egyptian military back to barracks, while Nour's red-meat issue remains the promotion of its conservative social agenda."

On the otherhand, if you are like Londonstani and would much rather have trends in international politics explained to you through the medium of an amusing cartoon, you sir (or madam) are totally in luck!

"Yeah, but.." UK AID in the world

Parliament's Commons Select Committee published a report today calling for aid programmes to be cut in countries that don't honour agreements or avoid transparency.

Definitely worth having a look at if you are interested in what the British government does abroad.

A couple of questions jump out to Londonstani:

1 - The report seems to assume that host governments are going to be cowed into good behaviour because they fear the loss of the UK tax payer's millions (or thousands, ok, maybe hundreds). What happens if, actually, the UK government's contribution is a small part of a country's total aid package?

2 - Even if the UK government is a major donor, does aid spending actually give you clout? Not as much as you might think if the Malawian president's decision to chuck out the UK high commissioner is anything to go by. "So you don't like private jets, Mr. Ambassador? Let's see you row home."

3 - What if the host country decides to thank the international community for paying for the care of its poorest, and then decides to hold those same vulnerable people to ransom if the donors get crazy ideas about demanding accountability or transparency.. cough Sudan cough..

Don't get it twisted, Londonstani agrees with the MPs recommendations - in principle:

"The MPs urge DFID to set out specific governance conditions under which it will provide direct budget support to fragile states, and any under which it will be withdrawn and apply these consistently. They also recommend that DFID invest more in community-led local initiatives which respond to community priorities and give communities more confidence to hold their governments to account."

.. but you gotta wonder if they've figured out how these ideas work on the ground.

Beards, bikinis and the politics of the new Arab world

When it comes to revolutions, it's the bullets, tear gas and chanting crowds that gets everyone excited, but it's what comes afterwards that ultimately decides the future.

Although, like many other Middle East new junkies, I get up in the morning and think, "put on the news! What's going on in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen?!", the future of the Middle East - whether it will become a stable, prosperous region or an unstable basketcase that makes the rest of the world nervous - is being decided by what is happening right now in Tunisia and Egypt.

The conversations taking place in most Western (and non-Arab Muslim) media fixates on a couple of labels; military rule, Islamists and democracy. In reality, the struggle playing out in Arab countries that have managed to overthrow an unpopular leader is about much more fundamental issues; namely, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

Samer Al-Atrush, a freelance journalist based in Cairo writing for AFP and the Telegraph, had a great story out yesterday illustrating the political, societal and cultural tussle taking place away from the cameras that will nonetheless decide whether we are looking at a stable and prosperous Arab world or a region at odds with itself and the rest of the world.

"On a barren hill in Sharm el-Sheikh, not far from the famous beach resorts with their bikini-clad patrons, Islamist activist Ahmed Saber ponders the fate of revealing swimwear if his party comes to power."

Now, Londonstani and Samer were partners in journalistic crime a few years ago, so Londonstani has some idea of just how much pleasure Samer will have taken in mentioning Islamists and bikinis in the same sentence. The only thing that is likely to give Samer more satisfaction is that he has Salafis in there too. A Canadian-Palestinian with fluent Arabic and deep local knowledge, Samer has gotten to the root of the post-revolution debate.

Following foreign rule and then often military dictatorships of one form or another, the Muslim world in general, but the Arab world in particular, has had little opportunity to come to a durable consensus as to what confers legitimacy on rulers, what is expected of them and what the process of interaction between those in power and those they govern should be. In the absence of a debate, force has prevailed, buttressed by a substantial degree of bribery ("government jobs for all graduates! woohoo"), and blackmail ("it's your duty as an Arab and Muslim to support your great leader as he stands opposed to the devious activities of Zionists and imperialists").

This approach, in essence, characterises practically all political groups in the Arab world regardless of whether they call themselves "secular", "liberal", "democratic", "Islamist" or anything else. With civil society and media curtailed or subverted and education systems used to inculcate blind acceptance of the ruling clique's hold on power, there has been little space - until recently - to independently grapple with the basic issues of governance, rights and responsibilities, problems and solutions.

Until, that is, the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali were removed and the puritanical ideal of the Salafis clashed with the practical need to tolerate bikini-clad tourists in order to keep the economy functioning.

"With the Brotherhood, at least we can have a discussion," he said...But the Salafis are different. They are used to sitting in mosques saying: "God commanded this, and the Prophet commanded that. And now suddenly they are involved in politics. It won't work."

Of course, the idea of bikini and beards at loggerheads has picked up media attention, but the principle of balancing requirements and satisfying divergent interests is what's important here. Those who end up ruling the (hopefully) post-dictatorship countries of the Arab world will have to address the issue of keeping people employed, providing law and order, improving social justice and building an economy in the real world - one where there is no perfect solution mandated by scripture (religious or secular), just a least-worst option.

* If you are into your political philosophy, you might see a hint of the fundamental questions that seminal thinkers like John Rawls grapple with when trying to address some of the same issues.

** And if you are of the "Arabs/Muslims don't need to learn anything from an American" school of thought, you might want to look at Zakariya Qazwini's Awaj bin Anfaq, Al Farabi's al Madina al Fadila and Nizam al Tusi's Sayasatnama