Friday, 11 February 2011

After Mubarak

So Egypt's President Mubarak has finally gone. The old man's final throw turned out to be yesterday’s stubborn speech, failing to turn the tide of protest against him, and – more importantly – failing to convince Egypt’s Army that he could cling onto power. It seems safe to speculate that the Army provided the final push. The protesters are still shouting in the streets, as they have been for weeks, but it is the Army that has held the country together. First its jets and helicopters overflew Cairo’s main square, letting Egyptians know who held the power. In the end it was the Army that decided enough was enough. Note that it is the Army’s council of generals – and not Mubarak’s deputy Omar Suleiman – that seem to be assuming power – at least according to the press reports. Egypt’s Army – US equipped, Africa’s biggest, and the tenth largest armed force globally – now calls the shots.

In many ways this is a relief. The Army is a very popular institution in Egypt, counts for stability, opposes the radicals in the Muslim Brotherhood, and has strong links to the US and other allies. Protestors drew rude slogans on tanks, but its role has been largely that of police in recent weeks, ever since it vowed not to fight with the protesters. It can use that popular goodwill to buy some stability and avoid any ugly scenes for now. Then it’s up to the generals to decide what to do next.

Who will hold lasting power in Egypt could now go one of a few ways:
  • a military junta led by the generals, no better than before, but providing some stability (for now);
  • a weak coalition government, with the Muslim Brotherhood in – probably violent – opposition;
  • a stronger coalition government but dominated by the extremist, anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood.
The latter option is not something the Army will want, and probably an option that it will not allow to happen. If the Brotherhood did get into power, they might also get their hands on the country’s treasury and its armoury: potentially helping to fund and arm all the other nasty elements of Arab politics.

In such a scenario the big risk is that Israeli hawks then start launching air strikes left, right and centre. That could easily happen if Israelis start thinking they’ve been forced into a corner and need to act before things get worse – not forgetting Iran. Then we could see a real Jihad.

Overall, when considering future Middle Eastern bloodbaths, Mubarak wasn’t so bad, right?

The source for the title picture for this post can be found online here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

O'Brian humour: You have debauched my sloth

Fans of the movie Master and Commander will probably point to Jack Aubrey's 'lesser of two weevils' joke as a jolly example of humour within Patrick O'Brian's writing. Readers of his Aubrey-Maturin books know that life aboard the Surprise is laced with humour.

Perhaps it's Stephen's debauched sloth in HMS Surprise which provides one of the more loveable examples of humour in the series. Like most sailors, the Surprises are prone to superstition, and like most Englishmen they are fond of pets. They also follow military norms by taking the animal to their hearts as a lucky mascot, and Jack even shares his grog with it to console the seasick creature during a storm.

The sloth sneezed, and looking up, Jack caught its gaze fixed upon him; its inverted face had an expression of anxiety and concern. 'Try a piece of this, old cock,' he said, dipping his cake in the grog and proffering the sop. 'It might put a little heart into you.'  The sloth sighed, closed its eyes, but gently absorbed the piece, and sighed again. 
Some minutes later he felt a touch on his knee; the sloth had silently climbed down and it was standing there, its beady eyes looking up into his face, bright with expectation.  More cake, more grog; growing confidence and esteem.  After this, as soon as the drum had beat the retreat, the sloth would meet him, hurrying towards the door on its uneven legs: it was given its own bowl and would grip it with its claws, lowering its round face into it and pursing its lips to drink.  Sometimes it went to sleep in this position, bowed over the emptiness.
"In this bucket," said Stephen, walking into the cabin, "in this small half-bucket, now, I have the population of Dublin, London and Paris combined: these animalculae - what is the matter with the sloth?" It was curled on Jack's knee, breathing heavily: its bowl and Jack's glass stood empty on the table. Stephen picked it up, peered into its affable, bleary face, shoot it, and hung it upon its rope. It seized hold with one fore and one hind foot, letting the others dangle limp, and went to sleep.

Stephen looked sharply round, saw the decanter, smelt to the sloth, and cried, "Jack, you have debauched my sloth."  
It's got to be one of the best comic set pieces of the series. However, it is not the only time O'Brian makes use of drunken animals in the series. There's also Babbington's ape in Post Captain.
'A damned ill-conditioned sort of an ape. It had a can of ale at every pot-house on the road, and is reeling drunk. It has been offering itself to Babbington.'
From what I remember of the swarming bumboats in harbour and Babbington's generally low standards with women, he probably accepted the ape's hospitality.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Egypt: Let freedom rain (on Israeli heads)?

The ripples of unrest in the Arab world that began with Tunisia's brave 'Jasmine Revolution' are raising some interesting moral conflicts for Westerners and some more tangible concerns for Israel. Many liberal commentators are understandably lauding the spread of democracy through the streets of the Middle East. Although many wide-eyed media commentators are only just beginning to admit it, that looks like dangerous naivety.

Governments in Washington, London, Paris and Jerusalem are justifiably concerned with the lasting consequences of multiple regime changes in the region. You don't need to look at a timeline since the Suez Crisis and Empire to understand it, but it does add some colour to leaders' dilemmas. Nowadays Egypt numbers 84 million people, and it's biggest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is an Islamist grouping, with an unstable history of extremism and encouraging Jihadist acts. So, Jewish and Western leaders might be forgiven for their reluctance to cheer too loudly. These people are ugly, and they are waiting in the wings.

As one friend of mine recently commented, many media commentators are viewing unrest in the Middle East as the prelude to a second Berlin Wall event: the oppressed masses confining Cold War-era authoritarian regimes to the litter bin of history. What we have in reality, is perhaps just as likely to be the prelude to a second Holocaust.

The Israelis and others are naturally worried that if the Muslim Brotherhood, and others similar to them, get their hands on the reins of state power, Egypt could become a virtual superpower of state sponsored terrorism that would diminish the relative standing of the threat posed by a backwater like Afghanistan to nothing more than a peripheral headache in defence and security policy. Worse, Egypt is already well armed. The US alone has been shipping an average of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak for the best part of thirty years, helping keep him in power until now. A new and potentially hostile Egyptian government might end the quarter century of stable relations that the country has maintained with Israel, following Israeli withdrawal from Sanai in 1979, just before Mubarak took over. A new regime in Egypt might not continue to see its military hardware as chips to keep Iran in place. Egypt's US-supplied F-16 fighters, Abrams tanks, guided missiles and navy frigates could be used to aid those forces keen to rain down destruction on Israel.

More worryingly for Israel, while they enjoy US support and protection, the United States will likely not commit itself to another ground war in the Middle East, so in the case of a major conventional war breaking out between Israel and its neighbours, the Israelis will be cornered, outnumbered, desperate, and ultimately more likely to push the button for their  nuclear deterrent.

When I was a rookie student of international relations, one of the more up-to-date schools of thinking was neo-liberalism. The theory goes that free markets, trade and globalisation - with all the gaudy trinkets of consumerism and now online social media - encourage democracy's spread globally. There have been few ordeals more cringeworthy than listening to social media dilettantes prattle on about Twitter's revolutionary role and re-setting their online locations to Tehran during Iran's post-election protests in 2009. Much of this is over-hyped bullshit, but the internet has undeniably added an important contribution to the spread of Western liberal ideas.

The next neo-liberalist tenet is the idea that democracies do not wage wars of aggression against other democracies. This does hold some water historically, as it's difficult to think of examples of wars between liberal democracies. However, take one look at the sort of Islamic fundamentalist politicians elected in Palestine. Hamas is still listed by the US as a terrorist organisation. It effectively blurs the line to the point where it is impossible to distinguish where its political, paramilitary and terrorist functions begin or end. More than that, Hamas as an offshoot of the original Muslim Brotherhood organisation. Of course there is no certainty which political parties will win out in Egypt after Mubarak, Egypt is much more secular than Saudi Arabia, but the Brotherhood will certainly not be unrepresented.

The problem for the Israelis is that while events in Egypt are out of their control, they face pressure to support Mubarak as a long-time reliable ally: keeping him in power is in their short-term national interest.

However, publicly backing Mubarak is probably as bad for Mubarak as it is for Israel's image abroad. So better to keep some distance. Meddling could make things worse. Backing the 'wrong' side would provide justification for hostility from whatever new regime steps into the vacuum. But there is also little point in backing the 'right' side in this conflict. Egyptian poverty under strong government keeps Egypt's problems within Egypt, but suicide bombers bring them loudly on to the doorsteps of Israel and the West.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Books: Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain

The following extract is an obscure but great example of Patrick O'Brian's wonderful writing. The joy of reading O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of novels is, for me, unsurpassed by any other collection of modern literature. The grasp of period detail is phenomenal, as is the reader's total immersion within the wooden world of Nelsonic navy life, with the sporadic adrenalin of sea battles just dazzling punctuation to the great man's faultless prose. Nor are the books just about life on the ocean wave, as Stephen Maturin's complex character as surgeon, spy and naturalist demonstrates. This passage is from Post Captain, set in 1802, with Dr. Ramis addressing his friend (and fellow spy) Stephen, physician to physician:
'You speak of loss of weight. But I find that you yourself are thin. Nay, cadaverous, if I may speak as one physician to another. You have a very ill breath; your hair, already meagre two years ago, is now extremely sparse; you belch frequently; your eyes are hollow and dim. This is not merely your ill-considered use of tobacco - a noxious substance that should be prohibited by government - and of laudanum. I should very much like to see your excrement.'

The great author himself.
Patrick O'Brian: 1914-2000.

Post Captain, the source of the above extract, is the second of the series. It has been described as "Austen-sur-Mer", because of the time its protagonists spend "on the beach" within Georgian society (frequently as fish out of water), which is a clear homage by O'Brian to Jane Austen. The novel is sometimes also referred to as the best of the entire series, coming after the equally compelling but very different Mediterranean seafaring adventure of Master and Commander.

My posting this is a signal that I'm probably about to embark on re-reading the twenty (and a bit) books of the Aubrey-Maturin series for the third time. If you're also a devotee, you can show your esteem for the books on Facebook by joining the popular fan page and group I've created on there.