As years and tears go by

2013 was a year in which we saw far too much of Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, Miley Cyrus and Barack Obama, the latter looking appropriately shocked at how inept his administration actually is. Visually, therefore, it wasn’t a very good year.

On the other hand, we got to see a lot of Toronto’s bizarre mayor Rob Ford, whose admission that he smoked crack while “in one of my drunken stupors” has got to be one of the most honest political statements of all time. And, of course, there was also the Mandela sign language interpreter who mistook Obama for an angel or a prawn and embarrassed Zuma only slightly less than Zuma embarrassed himself. So, it was not a year without humor.

Locally, we got to see Kerry descending from a plane so often we began to set our clocks by it. We also got to read about Netanyahu refusing to get on a plane – to Mandela’s funeral – which is not something most of us expected to see from any Israeli politician in our lifetimes, never mind a devotee with a special flying bed. Unfortunately, the killjoy judges on Israel’s Supreme Court denied us the sight of Avigdor Lieberman being dragged off in chains, which would have made it a stellar year no matter what else happened.

Overall, I’d say that it was a quiet-before-the-storm year; one in which little went terribly wrong (unless you’re a Syrian, of course, or a North Korean uncle,) but during which several ominous trends came into sharper focus. I’m going to deal with three of them – one global, one regional and one local.

Globally, the big story of the year, it seems to me, was the retreat from democracy. Mass movements took to the streets in both Egypt and Thailand, attempting to overthrow democratically-elected governments which they had no chance of defeating at the polls. In Egypt, the protest led to the imprisonment of the president and the imposition of a military-led junta, which promptly returned the country to tried-and-tested authoritarianism.

In Thailand, the protestors demanded that the government be replaced by an unelected and vaguely conceived “people’s council” and seemed genuinely surprised when the government called fresh elections. Events in Ukraine and Turkey were less clear-cut, but in those two countries, too, the populist pressure to change policies could easily be mistaken for pressure to change the regimes.

What all four countries have in common is deeply divided electorates and large, aggrieved minorities. In Egypt and Turkey, the divide is (put very simplistically) religious-secular, in Ukraine it’s largely geographic (Europe-leaning West  versus Russia-centric East) and in Thailand it’s mainly class-based, though with a healthy dose of corruption and nepotism thrown in. Another thing they have in common is that in each instance the opposition has taken to the streets, rather than pursuing its goals politically. Democracy is fine for the majority, but it provides little comfort to a minority, however strong.

Bear in mind, that we’re not talking about South Sudan, where an ostensibly democratic government has been ripped apart by tribalism and probably some of the countless other ills that beset Africa. Egypt, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine are all big players. Their actions have significant regional implications.

Up until the fall of the Soviet Union, the common wisdom in the West was that democracy and capitalism went hand-in hand; that one couldn’t function effectively without the other. Together, they constituted the most evolved form of government – one that would bring the greatest good to the largest number of people. Francis Fukuyama even called it the end of history, to his everlasting embarrassment, I suspect.

China  long since put paid to the bluff about capitalism requiring a democratic bedrock. Authoritarianism, it turns out, is just as conducive to making money – and the 2008 depression with its associated banking scandals made it spectacularly clear that markets serve those who manipulate them a lot better than they serve those who merely rely on them for a decent living.

Now, events in some of the world’s larger democracies – and there are dozens of lesser examples, as well – are calling into question the efficacy of democracy in providing fair and equitable government. The system is meant to express the will of the people, but what if they have two wills? Or three? In a diverse, often patchwork world, the rule of the majority is not necessarily fair or just. Electoral majorities are not rational coalitions of people who have studied the issues and arrived at considered decisions. More often than not, they are determined by rigid allegiances (religious, ethnic etc.) and are impervious to radical change. Which means that the concerns of a minority can go unanswered forever.

Capitalist democracy is no longer the default option. In 2014 and beyond, we will see a further undermining of the democratic principle and increased attempts to change governments by non-democratic means. It will become increasingly legitimate to question the democratic consensus and look for better ways of providing both economic security and personal and group freedoms.

2013 was a divisive and bloody year in the Middle East, which seems set on proving the principle that however bad things are, they can always get worse. Underlying much of the strife in the region was the Sunni-Shia divide, not a new phenomenon by any means but one that seems to be more pervasive and to be sinking to new lows of hatred and depravity.

The clash between the two dominant streams of Islam is everywhere. It is being acted out in the extraordinarily brutal Syrian civil war, which has long since outgrown its roots as a popular uprising, the tit-for-tat bombings and assassinations in Lebanon, the daily slaughter in Iraq, the brutally suppressed demonstrations in Bahrain and several other flashpoints. All are expressions of bitter sectarian religious hatred.

But they are more than that, too. Fuelling the flames is the power struggle between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) for regional dominance, in addition to ideological purity. Each is aggressively pursuing its goals diplomatically and, more to the point, by arming, training and supporting proxy armies in the war zones, primarily Syria, a benighted place that is eerily reminiscent of Spain in the Thirties.

The Spanish Civil War began as a primarily class-based internal struggle, but soon mutated into a testing ground and proxy war between the two dominant ideologies of the time – communism, represented by the Soviet Union and the Comintern, and fascism, represented by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. While Franco and the Spanish fascists got on well enough with their German and Italian counterparts, the Republican (leftist) camp was soon subsumed in the global communist power-play. By 1938,  the different Republican factions were at each other’s throats as much as at the throats of the enemy.

Like Spain, Syria has seen an influx of ideologically-motivated fighters into the ranks of the opposition and more institutional support for the regime from Iran and Hamas. It has also seen the native Syrian fighters swamped by the ideological revolutionaries from outside the country and there have been bloody clashes between them.

Above all, a local uprising based on local issues has mutated into a regional battle between two dominant ideologies – Iran-backed Shia Islam and Saudi-backed Sunni Islam.

We know from history that Spain was a testing ground for the great clash between fascism and communism that came soon enough in 1941. The big question is whether Syria, bloody as it is, is just the opening round in a wider, more catastrophic confrontation between the Islamic rivals? A confrontation triggered, say, by Israeli and/or US action against Iranian nuclear facilities which metastasizes into an all-out regional conflict with some very odd bedfellows? I doubt we’ll get the answer in 2014, but we might get some tantalizing hints.

And that brings us to Israel. Without further ado, here’s my prediction: John Kerry will succeed in getting Israel and the Palestinians to sign (initial? smudge?) a framework peace agreement but the whole thing will be a sham. There will be so many provisos, secret memoranda, crossed fingers and nods-and-winks that each aide will be able to argue credibly that it didn’t make any concessions at all.

The sole result of the agreement will be another year of stasis and bickering, along with earnest American proclamations of real progress. Most of all, it will allow the West to postpone unpleasant decisions about imposing sanctions on Israel for another year. Israel will continue building housing in the occupied territories, imprisoning African refugees without trial and passing reactionary legislation.

Everyone will be happy – well, everyone who counts that is.

Have a very happy new year.