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A boy and a book change the world

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

A young man burns himself to death, the result of bitter frustration and humiliation. A distinguished but little known American scholar writes a book on how to organize a non-violent revolution.

Of themselves, events of no great importance. Taken together, they’ve played a big part in the uprisings now shaking the Arab world.

The death by self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable seller working the streets of the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, was the spark that set off revolt in that country. (The main square in Tunis has been renamed in his honor). The spirit of revolt spread quickly to Egypt, Libya, Yeman and other countries.

But the techniques of many of the leaders of those uprisings have been borrowed from the writings of Gene Sharp, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts and founder of the Albert Einstein Institute.

Sharp is the author of numerous books, the most important being From Dictatorship to Democracy, which he wrote for the Burmese democratic movement in 1993. It outlines 198 non-violent methods to bring down an oppressive government, and has been translated into more than thirty languages.

According to filmmaker Ruridh Arow, whose film, Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution, will be released this spring, Sharp’s methods of popular non-violent resistance have been put to use in Serbia, the Ukraine, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Burma.

Writing on the BBC World News site,  Ruaridh Arrow says:

His central message is that the power of dictatorships comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern – and that if the people can develop techniques of withholding their consent, a regime will crumble.”

Portions of the book are downloadable here.

PUBLIC OPINION POLLS — OUT OF DATE?

There’s an interesting debate raging — again — over the role of public opinion polls in shaping political views. Michael Adams of the Environics Group weighs in on the subject today in the Globe and Mail.

Adams makes the point that sophisticated pollsters are fully able to factor into their polling the effects of changing demographics. He disagrees, for example, with Alan Gregg who argues that younger voters are not fairly represented in polls. Gregg said on the CBC that people who have abandoned land lines and use only cell phones are being left out of pollsters’ calculations.

All this comes just a day after a new poll showing a big drop in support for the Harper Conservatives. It reminds me that Rex Murphy made a prophetic comment on air last week when he observed that whenever the Harperites nudge into majority territory, they screw up. The latest example, of course, being the Bev Oda saga. Sure enough, that dust-up is being blamed for the drop of a dozen points in support for the Conservative government.

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Putting the NOT on the dotted line

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Anyone who has ever signed an offer to buy or sell a house, lease an apartment, or borrow money knows all parties have to initial any changes to a document. That’s why it’s so stupid, and so despicable, that the Minister of International Development, Bev Oda, is still part of our government. A lying government, as it turns out.

As is usual whenever the Harper government gets caught with tis hand in the cookie jar, all manner of attempts are made to obfuscate (“cover up”) the issue. This time, Harper & Company defend themselves on the grounds that a Minster has the right to make decisions regarding spending in her department.

Exactly. Except that it’s becoming increasingly clear that it wasn’t Bev Oda, but rather someone in the higher ranks of the Tory government — like the Prime Minister, maybe? — who decided to override her signature which approved a $7 million, five-year grant to Kairos, an organization that has done sterling work under the direction of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

In Question period today, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff summed things up nicely:

“We’ve got a prime minister who lets a minister deceive the House of Commons, falsify a document, and instead of reprimanding her or dismissing her, gets up in this House and actually applauds her,”

Here’s what’s happened:

1) CIDA examines the work of Kairos and agrees it’s entitled to further funding. CIDA president Margaret Biggs signs a Minister’s approval and sends it to Bev Oda for her signature.

2) Oda signs the document.

3) There’s blow back from high-ranking Tories who don’t like the fact that Kairos has funded human rights groups in BOTH Israel and Palestine. The grant is cancelled. Immigration minister Jason Kenny, seeking to curry favor while visiting Jerusalam, says in a speech that Kairos lost its funding for “taking a leadership role in the boycott … divestment and sanctions campaign” against Israel. Another example of this government’s craven lust for votes, in this case Jewish votes.

4) Challenged, the Tories say Oh no, politics played no part in this sad chapter. CIDA itself, they say, wanted the grant stopped.

5) It’s then discovered that someone has inserted the word NOT into the document signed by Biggs and Oda, to indicate the grant was not approved. But AFTER THE FACT, according to Ms. Biggs. She says NOT was NOT there when she signed the document.  No initials to signify they acknowledge this vital change. I call this legal chicanery and fraud.

6) Hauled before the House Foreign affairs Committee, Minister Oda says she doesn’t know how the NO got there.

7) This week in the House, she admitted she did know, but didn’t explain how the NOT came about, or on whose direction.

8) Today in Question  period, Mr. Harper said Minister Oda was clear in what she said before the committee. Clearly misleading, of course.

It is typical of the Harper government that these kinds of issues — like the cancellation of money for Toronto’s Gay Parade, or the decision to cancel the mandatory census short form — blow up into ethical issues. It’s the result of a government behaving unethically.

The Bev Oda saga will continue to work its way through Parliament, where the Opposition is demanding that the cabinet minister be censored for misleading the House. She is likely to become the first cabinet minister in Canadian history to be subject to such a sanction.

But it won’t have any effect on the Mubarak, I mean, the Harper regime.

In the middle of Tahrir Square

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Another email from “inside Egypt,” courtesy of Nancy Mereska. The writer is Dr. Susan Belcher of Edmonton, Alberta, who with Egyptian-born husband, Dr. Yehia el Nahas, is spending the winter in Cairo.

Yehia went to the big demonstration at Tahrir Square  yesterday (Tuesday) with his 20 year old niece and her father as well as with Yehia’s brother. Those two men are specialist physicians. They stayed at Tahrir Square from the early morning until late afternoon as Yehia wanted to be home by dark. They took the subway to the station that is one stop before Tahrir, as all the entrances to the subway into Tahrir Square station are locked and trains don’t stop there.

Yehia said the demonstration was very orderly, celebratory, and that there are many, many women and young children, even lots of infants. The line-up to get into the square is very long, backing up across the bridges of the Nile and down all the side streets. The army has pulled their tanks back down the side streets which enter the Square and are not checking people. They are leaving that to the demonstrators themselves who have formed a line around the outer square and are checking people’s IDs and making sure that no weapons enter the Square. Many more people have taken tents and blankets, etc.,  almost covering the Square itself with tents.. He said that people are walking around with lots of bread, ta’amayya (filafil), and fool (fava beans) and other food for the demonstrators. Many of the people in the Square have been there without leaving since Day One. Many of the people who live in apartments facing the square have opened their doors to let people in to rest and even sleep at night.

The police are nowhere to be seen around the square, though we do see truckloads of them here in al-Ma’adi (our suburb of Cairo) parked in various locations.

The demonstrators are calling for massive demonstrations every Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday until the entire Mubarak regime are out of Egypt or in jail. The regime has picked on a few ministers with assets of just over $1billion each stolen from the state to prosecute so they are in jail as scapegoats. The demonstrators are not falling for it — they are demanding the return to the state of Mubarak’s $70 billion.

The demonstrators do not want any one individual to be seen as their leader. They are a collective: the people. Wael Ghonim refused to address the crowds at Tahrir yesterday as he said the revolution belongs to all the people of Egypt and he does not want to be seen as a “leader.” The establishment cannot understand this concept, though the Wafd Party sees the writing on the wall and has said on al-Jazeera that the youth of Egypt are heading the revolution and it is their demands that should be respected.


(See revealing six-year-old video on Muslim Brotherhood)

Too bad the media are prevented from covering the demonstrations that are going on in every town in Egypt. The workers at the Suez Canal are on strike until the government falls.

Yesterday and today I drove my car all around al-Ma’adi suburb — lots of cars on the streets and people going about their business as usual. The stores here are supplied regularly by big trucks and there are no shortages. Only in the center of Cairo are there shortages.

The weather has been a bit cold here, especially at night so I feel sorry for the demonstrators. It is always windy here and this winter has been more windy than usual due to El-Nino.

The government is holding out not doing anything significant hoping that people will get fed up and go home. People will not be paid if they don’t go to work and many people are suffering from the high prices and low salaries here. Prices are the same as in Canada but salaries are pathetic. Yehia’s niece works as a teacher in a private school and her salary is about US$50/month whereas the foreign teachers in such schools earn US$5,500 per month. We met some Canadian teachers at that school and their US$5,500/month salary is tax free. Senior police officers earn US$250/month. The 15% increase in salary announced by Mubarak for civil service workers is pathetic.

We got a message from Delta Airlines informing us that our ticket home which was supposed to be Cairo-NY-Minneapolis-Edmonton on March 10 has been changed to Cairo-Paris-Minneapolis-Edmonton on March 11. Perhaps they expect trouble on the NY-Cairo route.

We plan to stay. The only change to our normal activity is that we are reluctant to travel outside al-Ma’adi in case we get stranded or into some trouble. Fortunately, Yehia’s brothers live here as do many of his relatives and our friends so it is not exactly isolation. Still, feeling your freedom cramped is difficult so I can imagine how Egyptians feel after living under one dictatorship system after another since the beginning of time.

Standing up for the CRTC

February 8, 2011 Leave a comment

We’ve got a government in Canada that’s always trying to play the angles. One is to announce new policies via Twitter. Industry minister Tony Clement has become an old hand at this. And this is  how PM Harper’s office let out the word that it wants to roll back the decision of the CRTC to force telecoms to charge Internet users by usage – the more you use, the more you’d pay.

A popular move, you say. No one on  a fixed rate wants to be shifted to User-Based Billing where it would cost extra to down load movies and other heavy data features.

Under the current system, the big Telcos – BCE and Telus, for example – set a cap on how many gigabytes a subscriber can draw down. You get notified when you’re near the limit, and likely to run into more charges. It’s the independent companies — Small Internet Service Providers — who buy bandwith from the telcos and re-sell it to subscribers who would be hit. They’d have to give up offering unlimited downloading, and start charging heavy users extra.

As a result of Ottawa’s blow-back, the CRTC is reviewing the decision. It says it’s doing it “of its own initiative.” Believe that, and I have a bridge I can sell you.

This fiddling with the CRTC decision  on bandwidth is just another example of how the Harper government has made a shambles of telecom policy.

First, they overrode the CRTC to allow Globalive, backed with Egyptian money, to start up in Canada regardless of rules that are supposed to limit the entry of foreign providers. We won ‘t apply the law in this case, the government  said.

Few of us, especially me, have any objection to another entrant in our over-priced mobile telephone market.

But we either have laws or we don ‘t. That’s why the Federal Court, in a stunning slap at the Harperites, has told Ottawa it had no basis to allow Gobalive in. So now the future of their Wind Mobile is up in the air, and investors are scratching their heads as to whether telecom in Canada is something that it’s safe to invest in.Not a healthy situation.

Clearly the Harperites are seizing on every populist opportunity to try to make friends and influence voters.

How about trying to do it in a rational, sustainable way?

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with user-based billing. The problem is there’s not enough competition in telecom in Canada. That’s why our cell phone costs are so high, and why South Koreans pay a fraction of what we do for ten times the Internet bandwidth we enjoy.

In principle, it’s a good idea to encourage foreigners to invest in Canadian industry when new competition will be beneficial to consumers.

But the idea of allowing one company to circumvent the foreign investment rules, or stopping an eminently sensible user pay system for the internet, makes for an incoherent, unpredictable, and risky public policy.

These decisions might seem  beneficial to consumers in the short run, but their demoralizing effects on investment will do Canada no good in the long run.

So here’s my idea: Let the CRTC do its job. Makes rules for the telecom players. And if we want to lower the cost of cell phone and Internet access, open up the market to anyone who wants to provide service.

Competition, anyone?

Messages from the streets of Cairo

February 2, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s amazing how the tumultuous events taking place in Cairo are reverberating around the world.

Everyone seems to know — or knows someone who knows — people who are caught up in the drama.

The daughter of a university friend has been teaching school in Cairo. Her family has been desperate to get her out. We’re still waiting to hear whether she’s made it.

Nancy Meraska, who works tirelessly on behalf of women caught up in multiple marriages (stoppolygamyincanada) has sent along an email she received from Dr. Susan Belcher in Cairo. Dr. Belcher and her husband, Mr. Yehia El Nahhas, are members of the Board of Directors for Stop Polygamy in Canada; and, retired university/college instructors.  They spend their winters at Yehia’s family compound in Cairo, Egypt. Susan writes:

“We had no internet access for the past 9 days…they opened it today for a short while so am sending this note. The banks are closed the past few days and probably until this is over; in fact, no one except the army is going to work until Mubarak is out of Egypt.

“We are fine. The police are nowhere to be seen except directing traffic downtown. Food is running out downtown due to the high number of people congregating there but there is lots of food in our local stores and we have stocked up on food in the house here…All the men (except Yehia!!) in the apartment buildings including ours are standing out on the sidewalk all night long with guns, sticks, and knives to ward off any potential looters…they have put big boulders on the street to close the streets every couple of blocks to not let anyone pass who does not live here. The army fires off machine guns and tank guns all night long as a warning to potential thieves. People are catching thugs and turning them over to the army. All the police stations in the country have been burned to the ground and all the prisons are empty as the guards ran away … Only the army is working. No one else is going to work. The country is losing millions of dollars daily as no one is collecting Suez Canal fees and no one is working in the ports so the boats cannot get water or supplies…

“No one is obeying any curfews. We go out every day to visit people and shop…tomorrow a 24 hr curfew is called and word is that Mubarak has ordered the army to fire on the demonstrators so there might be a blood bath downtown. We are sticking to our neighborhood…mentioned in the media…Ma’adi. Jasmine and the kids left on the first evacuation plan put on by the Americans. They could only get 50 seater planes so they flew to Athens. The American ambassador (an old woman) was the first one to leave!!!!! Jas had to pay US$400 for each person to fly to Athens and then had to find a hotel on her own and arrange for flight to NY on her own. Word is that the airlines are charging US$2,500 for a one-way ticket from Europe to North America!!!!!

“The gov keeps blocking cell phone transmission but not land lines.

“If Mubarak isn’t out of Egypt on Friday, people will riot more. All the opposition leaders and parties refuse to negotiate with the gov until after Mubarak leaves Egypt.

“We think the army will force him to go as the country cannot continue to lose this much revenue every day. No one is collecting the fees at the Suez canal and no one is working in the ports so boats cannot get water or supplies, etc., etc.

“I will keep in touch so long as we have internet access but I think they will cut it off again soon.”

One can watch it all on TV — as I’ve been doing by the hour, mostly via Al Jazeera/English — but none of it has quite the impact of a message like this one. Thank you, Nancy, for passing on this remarkable bit of writing.