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Middle East

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The liberation of Latin America

Champion or tyrant?
How refreshing it is to read a magazine which represents the Majority World. However thoroughly I enjoy reading the NI, I find your pro-Hugo Chávez stance disheartening (‘The tick and the time bomb’, The Liberation of Latin America, NI 356). Hugo Chávez is not the champion of the Venezuelan people: he is a tyrant who has little regard for democratic principles and the lives of his electorate.

Duncan Broe
Bedfordshire, England

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After reading the Keynote in The Great Privati$ation Grab (NI 355), I would like to express my growing impatience with sentences like ‘...the rights of governments... to make sovereign decisions on behalf of their citizens... are simply jettisoned’, which imply a conflict of interest between governments and business. In fact in almost all countries in the world, the government, even when elected, is in the hands of business élites; therefore public assets are simply sold by politicians to themselves and their cronies. In the past they were content with creaming off the surplus through bribes and insider dealing, but for some time now they have decided they want the lot. Italy and the US are two good examples of business and political élites virtually coinciding, as are the countries of the former USSR. But it is so in Britain too, as illustrated by George Monbiot’s book Captive State: everywhere, yesterday’s corporate director is today’s political leader and tomorrow’s European commissioner. They and their friends move from government seats to boardroom posts in a dance of the chairs that leaves us ordinary people ever- fewer crumbs to feed on.

When our politicians tell us that the privatization of medicine works wonders, they aren’t lying. They just omit to tell us who the medicine works for: themselves of course and their interchangeable friends and associates whose bank accounts have been swelling for two decades while the rest of the population is getting poorer and poorer.

The slogan of Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ‘Que se vayan todos!’ (‘Let them all go’ or ‘Let’s get rid of them all’) must become our political programme.

Stefania Podesta
Cogorno, Italy

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I was spellbound by Trevor Turner’s article

I shop, therefore I am’ (NI 355), mainly because it related so much to my own experience. I am an alcoholic in recovery and my disease, now in remission, is characterized by, inter alia, shyness, over-sensitivity and a proneness to isolate. These characteristics were with me long before I began to use alcohol to assuage the pain of being ‘different’ and out of step. But when I discovered the numbing effects of alcohol at age 18, I proceeded to medicate on it for the next 27 years.

I have not felt the need for a drink for seven years now, due entirely to the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, and my acceptance of their programme and philosophy. This is a truly international body of well over two million people. Key to their effectiveness in my case was the breaking of my isolation and the sharing of my experience with others of my ilk who understood me when no-one else could. This squares exactly with Dr Turner’s view of how sickness can result from obsessive, compulsive behaviour (shopping, drinking, drugging, etc), and how it can be turned around by sharing.

I had thought that I was a stubborn, heroic individualist, but now see that I’m not that special, that I need my family, my fellowship and the whole terrestrial community to enjoy a healthy, happy and meaningful life. Ain’t it grand?

Anthony, England
[Full name and address supplied.]

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Let the scales fall
I am a psychiatrist who appreciated Trevor Turner’s thoughtfulness. The ‘consumer society’ threatens us all with luxuries brought from all over the world, usually damaging the environment in numerous ways. ‘Buy local and sparingly’ seems a good motto.

Having lived alone for periods at one time, I can vouch for its painfulness; and also the opportunity for self-examination. Perhaps it is more a matter of how we use our time. It is important to recognize our own weaknesses and not to be caught up in self-admiration.

Eric Cleveland

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May he who loves not others, love himself

Fading Narcissus
Trevor Turner should have checked his facts about Greek mythology. Narcissus did not fall into a pool and drown. He faded away to death transfixed by his own beauty. He suffered from the curse of the goddess Nemesis: May he who loves not others, love himself. It was even said that as he was ferried over the river Styx into Hades, the Underworld, he peered over the edge of the boat to gaze one last time on his own image.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book The Shattered Lantern observes that one of the effects of contemporary narcissism is the inability to recognize sufficiently the reality of others. He believes it also affects our capacity to contemplate God.

Graham Leo
Gold Coast, Australia

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As for the Majority World, about 3 billion live on less than $3 a day...

We’re NOT all capitalists
Neal Hockley’s letter in NI 355 arguing that if not directly then by extension we are all capitalists in today’s world, drew numerous rebuttals. Here are some of the points you made.

1 Once again the argument that we all own corporations is advanced by a capitalist apologist. The reality is that about 90 per cent of the value of stocks and shares is owned by 10 per cent of the investors, and in the industrialized countries the wealthiest 1 per cent own about 50 per cent of the nation’s riches. It is true we all participate in the capitalist system. We have no choice other than selling our labour power (the ability of workers to produce much more than they get paid) in order to survive. That does not make us capitalists. A capitalist is one who owns enough capital, or means of production to realize the capital, to enable them to earn a profitable return from exploiting workers without having to participate in the production of goods or services ie to work. Corporations are in no way democratic. They are dictatorial, top-down organizations, and AGMs are controlled by wealthy blocks of votes – the more shares, the more votes. Similarly, voting for a slate of like-minded politicians who all want to run the capitalist system for the capitalists, with no other alternatives, every four years or so, does not make a democracy.

The great privati$ation grab

John Ayers
Cobourg, Canada

2 Just because a politician has a populist mandate does not mean they are morally right. Following this line of thinking the success of odious individuals like Hitler, Le Pen and their counterparts in the Netherlands and Austria, makes them right. Democracy is not simply the imposition of majority rule regardless of the rights of others.

Similarly, large corporations are not democratic. Just because ordinary people are forced to provide for themselves, due to the provision of inadequate pension structures by democratically elected governments, it does not mean they condone corruption.

Although people in developing nations attempt to improve their often appalling standard of living, it is insulting to call them capitalists. Capitalism is the exploitation of labour and resources by a superior power. It is in the facilitation of multinationals, controlled by a small number of individuals, by Western governments and the World Bank, that we see the true face of capitalism.

John Murphy
Drogheda, Republic of Ireland

3 Neal Hockley claims that everyone is a capitalist, on the grounds that ordinary people own corporations via their pension funds. But this does not give ordinary people a fat unearned income, which is what makes a capitalist. Nor does it alter the fact that corporations need to make a profit, which is what leads them to exploit workers and devastate the environment. Such exploitation will continue until people decide to make the earth the common property of us all, with production for use and an end to money.

Paul Bennett
Manchester, England

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Bechtel in Iraq
Charmaine Seitz (‘Running out of water, running out of time’, Water, NI 354) has pinpointed as critical an issue in the Middle East as anything concerning oil. Access to water may become the most important strategic dispute between Middle Eastern administrations.

The Iraqi contract already handed to Bechtel, a huge multinational corporation profiled effectively by the NI, is likely to exacerbate this problem. Who knows what the cost may be to Iraq’s population in hiked water charges? If the people of Bolivia were asked this question, then from experience they would probably emphatically answer, ‘disastrous’. Inevitably Bechtel will link the contract to the arbitration of the World Bank, to ensure that they can sue if the Iraqis cannot pay. The international community must exert urgent pressure for a source of water infrastructure that is properly tendered, if it must be privately financed at all, and that is run to prioritize water to Iraqis as a human right rather than a source of profit.

Isaac Lyne
Leeds, England

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Giving points... for ‘freedom’ and ‘position of women’ is unintelligent and simplistic...

Disgusted of Manchester
I was disgusted to see your use of ‘star ratings’ when assessing developing countries. Giving points out of five for such criteria as ‘freedom’ and ‘the position of women’ is unintelligent and simplistic, given the enormous complexity of such issues. This sort of behaviour relegates NI from the level of intelligent criticism to that of merely short-sighted and dogmatic propaganda. Such narrow-minded assessment is akin to the tick-box economic requirements of the IMF.

Sage Pearce-Higgins
Manchester, England

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Letter from Lebanon

A bit of a stir
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Reem Haddad’s
friends have only one word on their minds.

It seemed like the perfect time to bring up the subject but I did so cautiously.

‘ Do you think we can have democracy in the Arab world, I mean a true democracy?’ I asked during the lull in the conversation at the dinner party my husband and I were hosting.

All faces turned to me. Here gathered in my home were six Lebanese friends and one American. The subject had obviously crossed their minds as all leaned forward eagerly.

‘ I don’t see why not,’ said one friend, Ramez. ‘If democracy works in the West it can work in the Arab world. We can have a true representative system and indeed we should have one.’

Lebanon is the closest any Arab country has come to democracy. While the people don’t directly elect the president, they elect the members of parliament. The parliament then elects the president and the speaker of the house. The new president in consultation with members of the parliament appoints a prime minister, who then appoints the cabinet.

However, to satisfy all religions in Lebanon, political seats are already prearranged by sect. The president must be a Christian Maronite (a sect similar to Catholics originating in the Middle East), the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the house speaker must be a Shi’a Muslim. Each religious group has a certain number of seats in the cabinet and parliament.

I could see another friend, Sana, pondering Ramez’s stand on democracy. ‘No way would democracy work here,’ she said. ‘If we change our system and let the “best man” win, well then each sect would vote for its own candidate and this would never do.’

Illustration: Sarah John Sana, a Christian, didn’t want to offend the Muslims in the group. What she meant to say was that she feared that Muslims – the majority in Lebanon – would win the presidency every time. Lebanese society, like the rest of the Arab world, is built on loyalties to sects, affiliations or tribes. Christians elect Christians, Shi’as elect Shi’as, and Sunnis elect Sunnis.

Lamia, a Muslim, got the point. ‘What you’re saying is that we will end up having an Islamic state if we have democracy,’ she said. ‘That’s not necessarily true. You know that many Muslims don’t want an Islamic state.’

There was an awkward silence. Zahi, another Muslim friend, spoke up. ‘Well, I think with the popularity of Muslim fundamentalism right now in the Arab world, it’s quite likely that Lebanon would become an Islamic state.’

‘ And so?’ Lamia retorted.

‘ And so,’ responded Sana rather defensively, ‘a lot of Lebanese Christians – and Muslims, I may add – will leave the country. No, we can’t have true democracy here. The seats must be prearranged between Muslims and Christians.’

My American friend, who’d been following the conversation closely, lightly cleared her throat and all eyes turned to her. ‘To be honest,’ she said, ‘I’m not sure Lebanon or the Arab world can be a democracy. It’s a mentality thing. You’re too tribal. Too sect-oriented. You don’t think: who can run the country better? You think: do I want a Muslim or Christian in power? We don’t think like that in the US and so it works.’

Another silence fell on the group as we took in Sarah’s words. Seeing that a tense religious debate was about to unfold and wanting to save my dinner party, I quickly changed the subject.

But the issue continued to nag in my head as many questions remained unanswered. It’s not a matter of whether we want democracy here or not, but would it work? Can we as Lebanese forget our sects and vote for a good president, regardless of religion?

I continued to ask various friends and acquaintances. All had ready answers. ‘Democracy’ has become the biggest buzzword since the Iraq war. Television programmes broadcast debates between pro- and anti-democracy analysts.

Some people I asked laughed, citing Iraq. ‘The Americans managed to untangle a web in Iraq,’ said one acquaintance. ‘Saddam Hussein held the many tribes together. Yes, with an iron fist and by repression – but they were held together. It’s laughable to think that a democratic system would work there.’

Others vehemently supported a democratic Iraq. ‘Iraq is the test,’ said a friend. ‘If it can work there, then it can work everywhere in the Arab world. America didn’t just become democratic. There was a time when only white males voted. They evolved. And so can we.’

My questions remain unanswered. I guess only time will tell.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.
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New Internationalist issue 358 magazine cover This article is from the July 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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