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SPECIAL REPORT: CUBA CHANGES COURSE UNDER RAUL CASTRO – Pages 8 -9
MAY 2011 No 1105
Immune and all‑powerful by SERGE HALIMI
The International Monetary Fund has just admitted that “nearly four years after the start of the global financial crisis, confidence in the stability of the banking system as a whole has yet to be fully restored” (1). US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke described it as “the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression” (2), but no one in the US has been charged with any crime. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and J P Morgan all stood to gain by the collapse of the high-risk investments they warmly recommended to their clients. They got off with a fine at worst; more often they got a bonus.
Eight hundred bankers were prosecuted and jailed after the fraud-related US Savings and Loans failures in the late 1980s. Now the power of the banks, increased and concentrated by restructuring, is so great that they seem immune to prosecution in any state impeded by public debt. Future White House candidates, including Barack Obama, are already begging Goldman Sachs to fund their election campaigns; the head of BNP Paribas has threatened European governments with a credit squeeze if they make any serious attempt to regulate the banks; Standard & Poor’s, the agency that awarded its highest rating of AAA to Enron, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and many junk bonds, plans to downgrade the US rating if Washington fails to deliver public spending cuts.
After three years of G20 meetings to produce a new “global harmony”, the system is still intact: a mixture of deregulation, princely rewards for the brains behind “financial innovations” and destruction paid for by state and taxpayer. In France, the Socialists complain that “governments devoted more resources to rescuing the banks and financial institutions in the year after the subprime crisis than the world spent on aid to third world countries over 50 years” (3). But the remedies they propose are pathetic (a 15% bank surcharge) or pious hopes (abolish tax havens, establish a public rating agency, tax financial transactions), which rely on unlikely “joint action by the member states of the European Union”.
So what should have been a crisis too far came to nothing. Andrew Cheng, chief adviser to the China Banking Regulatory Commission, says this passive attitude is connected to a “capture problem”, states in thrall to their financial system (4). Too often political leaders behave like bankers’ puppets, anxious not to spoil the party.
Translated by Barbara Wilson
(1) IMF Global Financial Stability Report, April 2011. (2) Quoted by Jeff Madrick in “The Wall Street Leviathan”, The New York Review of Books, New York, 28 April 2011. (3) Socialist Plan 2012. Supplement to L’hebdo des socialistes, no 610, 16 April 2011. (4) James Saft, “Big Winners in Crises: the Banks”, International Herald Tribune, 13 April 2011.
JOAN MIRÓ – ‘The Octopus Hunter’ (1969)
Is this the end of the
A great clamour for change has arisen in more than a dozen Syrian cities in recent weeks. Has the time come for President Bashar al-Assad to give way to pressure from the street and perhaps even to bow out altogether?
y Patrick Seale
Patrick Seale is the author of The Struggle for Syria, Oxford University Press, 1965, new ed, IB Tauris, 1986; Assad: the Struggle for the Middle East, California University Press, 1989; and The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East, Cambridge University Press, 2009
The disturbances started in mid-March in Daraa, a southern city on the border with Jordan, when a dozen children were manhandled, arrested and carried off to Damascus for scribbling hostile graffiti on a wall. Distraught parents came down into the street to vent their anger at such heavyhanded brutality. They were soon joined by others. The uprising had begun and soon spread across the country. No doubt it was inspired, in part at least, by the display of people power which has leapt with contagious speed from one country to another, shaking the foundations of Arab autocracy and giving a great jolt to the immobile political order in the Middle East.
In Syria, the authorities then made what may prove to be a fatal mistake. In a move that looked like panic, the security forces used live fire against the protesters – and have continued to do so. By the end of April, over 550 people had been killed in different locations around the country, while many more were wounded and possibly two thousand arrested. With little reliable information coming out of Syria it is impossible to be certain of the figures. The state used particular violence against Daraa, a poor city in an agricultural region which has suffered from government neglect and crippling drought in recent years. As if to punish it for initiating the troubles, tank fire was used to quell the protests and something like a siege put in place. Electricity and water were cut off and food became scarce.
The deaths in Daraa and elsewhere – and the emotional funeral processions that followed – have clearly aroused great rage in the population and a thirst for revenge. President Bashar alAssad’s legitimacy has been eroded. A strident call is ringing out increasingly for the fall of the regime. The president is now fighting for his political life and for that of the regime put in place in 1970 by his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad.
The rule of the Assads, father and son, has now lasted 41 years, a score comparable to that of other long-lasting Arab autocrats, each apparently determined to be a président-à-vie. In no other part of the world have so many rulers clung so assiduously to power. Bashar appears genuinely to have believed that the Arab nationalist ideology he inherited, his opposition to Israel and his support for resistance movements such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, gave him immunity from popular discontent. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on 31 January, he claimed that Syria could not be compared to Egypt. “Why is Syria stable,” he asked, “although we have more difficult conditions? Egypt has been supported financially by the United States, while we are under embargo by most countries of the world. We have growth although we do not have many of the basic needs for the people. Despite all that, the people do not go into an uprising. So it is not only about needs and not only about reform. It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have. There is a difference between having a cause and having a vacuum.”
Unfortunately for Bashar, this analysis has proved wrong. As if caught unawares, his first public speech on 30 March was a public relations disaster. It was delivered to an obedient parliament, which interrupted him repeatedly with acclamation and crass plaudits. In an aside, he seemed to concede that external crises had distracted him from making the reforms he had intended when he first took office. In a second speech on 16 April to his newly appointed cabinet, he announced the lifting of the hated state of emergency, in force since the Ba’ath Party seized power in 1963, and the abolishing of the dreaded Special State Security Court. But even these moves came to seem half-hearted when it emerged that demonstrations could only be held with prior permission from the interior ministry.
The difficult and perilous task Bashar now faces is nothing less than the profound restructuring – under great popular pressure – of a fossilised system of governance inherited from his father, but which is no longer appropriate to the modern age, and no longer tolerated by the bulk of the population. Like other Arabs, Syrians want real political freedoms, the release of political prisoners, an independent judiciary, the punishment of corrupt bigwigs, a free press, a new law on political parties allowing for genuine pluralism (and the cancellation of article 8 of the constitution which enshrines the
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inside this issue After the revolution: now Tunisia faces an economic crisis Page 2 Al-Jazeera: the Arab world’s alternative political forum Page 4 New Saudi writers are bringing sex out from under the covers Page 5 Nuclear fallout: the long-term consequences of Fukushima Page 6
Out of Africa: Turkey’s entrepreneurs discover a new continent Page 10 Cashing in: the Huffington Post takes the profit-driven AOL way Page 13 French academe: in search of Bourdieu’s ‘collective intellectual’ Page 14 A design for life: the enduring legacy of Michel de Montaigne Page 16