PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE II

In the light of the public sector strike today I can do no better today than to repeat the post I wrote on the day of the last public sector strike in June:

https://mercouris.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/public-sector-strike/

I find most of the press and political commentary with its scapegoating of public sector workers frankly offensive.  It seems that much of the political class (which includes the journalistic community) rather than address the real problems in the economy, which are to be found in the financial and banking system, are intent instead on waging a class war against the country’s most dedicated workers most of whom are absurdly low paid for the work they do. 

Public sector workers are in no sense responsible for the present crisis and have had to face wage and recruitment freezes for almost as long as I can remember.  A friend of mine who works in a critically important department of the Revenue, which deals with tax fraud, told me today that because of a wage and recruitment freeze that has been going on for years the staff are not only absurdly overworked and underpaid but also do not include a single worker under 35 so that when the current workforce retires there will be no one with the knowledge or experience to take its place.  Two other friends of mine, who have the critically important jobs of teaching in universities, work in a profession where wages have stood still since 1970 so that real incomes have steadily fallen.

Let me say it clearly that the work that public sector workers do is the toughest, most necessary and most underappreciated that is done in the country.  If public sector workers were permanently to withdraw their labour the entire country would come to a stop in a way that is true of no other group of workers.  Public sector workers are not responsible for the economic crisis.  It is beyond unfair that they should be expected to pay a disproportionate share of the burden now that things have gone wrong especially when those who caused the crisis continue to be so grotesquely over rewarded in spite of what they have done.  Speaking for myself but also I think for many others I say that the public sector workers who are striking today deserve full support in their strike and from me at least they have it.

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OSBORNE’S AUTUMN STATEMENT – RUNNING SCARED OF THE CREDIT RATING AGENCIES

George Osborne’s Autumn Statement has made clear as crystal that the coalition government’s economic strategy has been reduced to deficit reduction in an effort to defend Britain’s AAA credit rating.

This is hopeless.  Even if Britain’s economic performance is no worse than projections there is no possibility that the coalition government will be able to sustain this level of deficit reduction for the seven years that is now planned.  As has been pointed out by numerous commentators there is simply no precedent in modern British history for this.  In fact it was already clear from the comments of Danny Alexander the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Newsnight that the deficit announcement in the Autumn Statement is no more than an aspiration since the details of many of the actual spending cuts have not yet been agreed. There is of course no realistic possibility that many of these spending cuts ever will be agreed much less implemented on anything like the scale that would be needed to meet the target.

This means that unless there is a major change in economic conditions the coalition government is certain to miss its deficit reduction target  By constantly harping on the need to meet this target the coalition government has however boxed itself into a corner.  Its constant refrain that unless the target is met Britain’s credibility in the financial markets will be lost means that when the target is missed Britain’s credibility may indeed be lost.  If so a credit downgrade is inevitable.  Whether this will have quite the catastrophic consequences some predict is of course another matter. In the meantime and until this happens the attempt to meet the target will however ensure that any growth in the economy is choked off thereby deepening the existing recession.

This all reminds me very much of 1992 when a previous Conservative government pinned its credibility to an unachievable target, in that case maintaining sterling’s value within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, even though the price was a severe economic recession.  That government’s reputation for economic competence never recovered when the target was missed.  One wonders what will be the case this time.

EGYPT – A REVOLUTION GOING NOWHERE

In contrast to the somewhat artificial uprisings in Libya and Syria the uprising in Egypt that overthrew President Mubarak at the start of the year was a genuine and wholly internal affair.  Like all such uprisings it was driven by a mix of longstanding grievances against a regime that had become corrupt and authoritarian and which had lost touch with its people and the pressing needs of the moment, namely the huge spike in oil and food prices caused by the US Federal Reserve Board’s quantitative easing programme and the shortfall in the Russian harvest.  A rise in food prices of the sort that took place in 2010 puts intolerable pressure on people and families in countries like Egypt and given the low opinion most Egyptians had of their government it sufficed to push matters politically over the edge.  

Since then there has been simply drift.  The economic pressures that triggered the original uprising have not eased.  If anything because of the disruption to the economy and the collapse of tourist revenue they have got worse.  In the meantime such government as Egypt has is provided by a self appointed unelected body of senior military officers.  Like all such “provisional governments” the current Egyptian government lacks the authority and the legitimacy to carry out major changes, which its members drawn as they are from senior functionaries of the old regime anyway have good reason to dislike.  Nor having gained power are they at all anxious to part with power since this risks bringing to power people who might be prepared to use that power to carry out the sort of changes they dislike.  In holding on to power and resisting change they have moreover the support of the foreign stakeholders in Egypt’s status quo namely Saudi Arabia and the US.

The appearance after the collapse of an old regime of a “provisional government” formed from former functionaries of that regime and trying to preserve as much of that regime as possible whilst promising “reforms” is typical of many revolutions.  The growth of resentment and opposition to such a government is a revolutionary commonplace.  As the government is self appointed and “provisional” and lacks legitimacy its failure is also a commonplace.

The true crisis in Egypt is not that the current military authorities are facing opposition and that this has tipped over into violence.  That was entirely predictable.  The crisis is the complete lack of viable leaders able to unite the revolutionary forces and to take them forward.  There is as yet no sign of an Egyptian Robespierre, Lenin or Khomeini.  There is no strong revolutionary movement such as was provided by the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks or the radical Mosque.  If such a person or movement exists in Egypt today then they would surely have made their presence felt by now.  The fact that no such person or movement has so far appeared can only mean that they do not exist.  All the potential leaders who have been mentioned so far are instead either western educated liberals such Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who are hardly cut out to be revolutionary leaders and who seem to have no real empathy with the Egyptian masses or the Muslim Brotherhood, which in Egypt is an intensely conservative force that for all practical purposes supported the old regime and the status quo and which has no programme for taking Egypt forward. 

In the absence of such a revolutionary leader or movement there is drift.  Elections have been announced but on the assumption that they take place it is difficult to see that they will bring about any meaningful change such as would be noticed by the Egyptian people.  It is likely that any government that emerges from such elections will be weak and unstable.  It is difficult to see how it could make real headway against the many intractable problems that Egypt has.  

In the light of this drift it is very difficult to see where this revolution is going.  One possibility is that whatever government emerges from the elections will for all its weakness have sufficient legitimacy to survive the inevitable disappointment that will follow,  If so the revolutionary impetus will dissipate into cynicism and apathy and Egypt will eventually end up with a government very like the one that was overthrown in January. 

The other possibility, which has not been discussed though it is surely a very real possibility, is for a military coup led by radical younger army officers.  It was middle ranking army officers whose intervention proved decisive in January when they made known their refusal to obey orders to fire on the protesters.  That experience will have given these officers confidence and a sense of their own power.  The general weakening of discipline that will have taken place since then will encourage the growth of political associations or networks amongst the officers and it is a virtual certainty that these exist by now.  Egyptian officers have the precedent of the 1952 coup that brought Colonel Gamal Nasser to power.  Nasser for many Arabs and Egyptians including one suspects many army officers remains a revered figure.  Given this precedent and the lack of a convincing civilian alternative the possibility (though not the certainty) of a coup leading eventually to the establishment of a military dictatorship with a radical programme must be very real.

DEATH TOLL IN SYRIA

In light of the difficulties I have had obtaining a complete transcript of the speech of Saif Al Gaddafi of 20th February 2011 I am now putting on record information given by the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in an interview he gave today to the Sunday Times.  In this interview Assad claimed that the total civilian death toll in the crisis so far is not 3,500 as claimed by the UN but 619 to which should be added around 800 members of the security forces who have killed in rebel attacks.

Incidentally I also record that following my long Libya post an acquaintance of a friend of mine who speaks Arabic has also attempted to find on the internet the complete Arab text of Saif Al Gaddafi’s speech of 20th February 2011 but has been unable to do so.

REPORTING SYRIA PART 2

The following is an interesting article in the Guardian on Saturday, which briefly lifts the veil of misinformation surrounding the situation in Syria http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/19/homs-syria-rebellion-assad

The important thing about this article is that it has appeared in the Guardian, which of all the British newspapers is the one which together with The Times has been the most aggressive in its reporting of the Syrian crisis.  The reporter cannot therefore be accused of pro government bias and in fact the article if anything reflects the anti government line being followed by the Guardian.  Moreover since the journalist who wrote the article visited Homs without the knowledge of the Syrian authorities he was not supervised or controlled by government minders who were not therefore in a position to monitor his interviews or to control what he could see.

Homs is supposed to be the Syrian city at the centre of the anti government protests.  Reports that have appeared have suggested that it has all but slipped out of government control and that armed clashes regularly occur there.  The article in the Guardian written by a reporter who has actually been to Homs does not support these claims.  It describes a city that is tense but quiet with a srong military presence but with the Syrian authorities very much in control.  The reporter saw no protests or signs of fighting though he claims to have heard short bursts of firing and a single explosion during the night.  Importantly he found shops, hotels, cafes and restaurants still open.  Anyone with any knowledge of civil conflicts knows that the first sign of unrest is when shopkeepers close their shops.  The fact that shops in Homs are open is a sure sign that the extent of the protests is being exaggerated.

Surprisingly enough the reporter also found some sympathy for the Syrian President as well as a great deal of cynicism concerning the motives of Turkey and of the Gulf Arab states.  There were also doubts about the existence of the anti government rebel army the western media has recently been writing about.  One informant told the journalist of rumours that Al Jazeera is paying $20,000 for film of unrest.  The reporter admits that on the evidence of what he saw in his journeys between Damascus and Homs talk of civil war is exaggerated.

This article is consistent with the pattern of reports that have been coming out of Syria ever since the start of the crisis. Reports that originate with the Syrian opposition speak of mass unrest and widespread violence.  Reports written by persons actually present at the scene of the unrest invariably describe a situation which whilst tense is by no means out of control.  Unfortunately the former reports vastly exceed the latter in number and are the ones that receive the attention.  Though it ought to be obvious that reports that originate with the Syrian opposition are by their very nature unreliable the western media appears to prefer them even to the more sober reports of its own reporters.

SYRIA POSTSCRIPT

As a brief postscript to my previous post, I wish to comment on reports that have appeared concerning a supposed attack by Syrian rebels on a military base near Damascus.

The western media is treating the reports as true.  As such they have been widely publicised and commented on.  There is no warrant for this.  Like almost all other reports coming out of Syria about opposition actions the reports about the attack on the military base originate wholly with the Syrian opposition.  As I have repeatedly said in posts on this blog any reports that originate from one side or another in a conflict should be treated with skepticism.  In this case the reports have not been independently verified.  There are no grounds therefore to report them as true.

WAR CLOUDS OVER SYRIA

 Back in October I wrote a post in which I discussed diplomatic manoeuvres in the Security Council concerning Syria and said that they showed that there is a definite agenda for regime change involving external military action in that country.  Here is a link that post.

https://mercouris.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/syria-and-the-security-council/

In that post I predicted that the defeat of the western powers in the Security Council in October did not mean that the agenda for regime change in Syria had been abandoned.  Recent events confirm this.

Since the Security Council meeting in October the focus has switched to the Arab League.  This is the regional organisation to which Syria belongs and of which it is a founding member.  Importantly none of the BRICS states that blocked the Resolution drafted by the western powers in the Security Council is a member of the Arab League.  The Arab League is instead dominated by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf notably Qatar. 

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are close allies of the US.  Qatar hosts a large US military base and the relations of its ruling family to the US are traditionally close.  Qatar and Saudi Arabia both control the Arab world’s two biggest satellite television stations, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which have in recent years displaced the newspapers of Beirut and Cairo as the main source of Arab news.  Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also key aid providers to poorer Arab states such as Egypt, Sudan and Oman, which can therefore be relied upon  to follow their lead.  As conservative Sunni Arab monarchies they are the deadly enemies of the radical Shiite republic in Iran and their hostility to Iran’s main Arab ally Syria is something that can therefore be taken for granted.

The Arab League played a crucial role in providing a cover of legitimacy to the western attack on Libya.  In the light of its domination by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who can be relied upon to follow a pro US and anti Syrian line, it was therefore entirely unsurprising that following the events in the Security Council in October attention should have switched to it.

So far events have followed the prescribed course.  A meeting of the Arab League was called, which Syria attended.  A peace plan was agreed with Syria’s agreement.  This called for an end to the violence, the opening of a dialogue between the Syrian government and the protesters, the release of prisoners and an Arab League mission to be sent to Syria to monitor the implementation of the agreement and to assist in the dialogue.

Though reliable evidence about the situation in Syria is impossible to come by it seems that in the weeks before the Arab League meeting the protests and the violence were starting to die down.  News reports of the protests though deriving entirely from the opposition and therefore unreliable suggested a significant fall off in the number of people being killed as compared with the situation at the start of the violence a few months ago.  There is some evidence that resistance to the regime is now largely confined to a few places, notably Homs and some border areas.

Exactly as might have been predicted, the announcement of the peace plan was followed by a flood of reports in the western press speaking of an escalation in the violence. It is impossible to say whether these reports are true.  On the one hand the announcement of the pleace plan does give the protesters a reason to step up their protests.  Since it is clear that they cannot overthrow the Syrian government by themselves they have every incentive to step up their protests and blame the government for any resulting violence and the failure of the peace plan if this brings external intervention closer. 

However, as I said in my earlier post, given the bias in the western press, reports of protests and violence effectively do the same thing irrespective of whether they are true or not.  Given that this is so and given that all the reports of further protests and more violence originate with the Syrian opposition there is good reason to exercise caution before assuming that these reports are true.  The one experienced western journalist who is reporting the conflict, the Independent’s Robert Fisk, appears to be developing doubts.  The fact that similar reports that came out of Libya in February at the start of the conflict there turned out to be false is further reason for doubt.

Needless to say no such caution or doubt has been in evidence.  The western media  uncritically reproduces the reports as true and has put all the blame on the Syrian government.  Within days of the plan being announced and purely on the strength of these reports the Arab League hurriedly reconvened, declared Syria in breach of the plan and announced that Syria would be suspended from the Arab League unless it “fully complied” with the plan by 16th November 2011.  Importantly this decision was made before a single member of the mission whose despatch was part the plan had been to the country to assess the situation for himself.

In the meantime the western media has been up to more of its usual mischief, misrepresenting comments made by a Chinese official and by King Abdullah of Jordan that implied that China and Jordan had both turned against Syria and the regime of President Assad. 

The Chinese official in question was none other than China’s Deputy Foreign Minister. Certain comments he made have been misrepresented as supporting the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership.  Supposedly this represents a change from China’s position at the Security Council meeting in October when China joined Russia to veto the Resolution that had been proposed by the western powers.  

Careful reading of the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister’s comments show that his words have been completely misrepresented.  He was not referring to the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership.  His comments were about the Arab League’s peace plan to which Syria had agreed.  Whilst misreporting his comments the western media has ignored an article published by the official Chinese News Agency Xinhua and the People’s Daily, which shows the Chinese government’s frustration and annoyance at the latest turn of events following the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership.

As for King Abdullah’s comments, the BBC which interviewed him has reported him as saying that President Assad should resign when in fact he said no such thing.  What King Abdullah actually said was that if he was in President Assad’s position he would resign but that nothing would be achieved if Assad were to resign and be replaced by another regime hardliner and that in King Abdullah’s opinion Assad was someone who genuinely believes in reform and who should carry it out.  In other words King Abdullah properly speaking was not telling Assad to go but was asking him to stay.

The latest news is that Syria has managed to obtain a new meeting of the Arab League to reconsider its threatened suspension.  Meanwhile the mission that was to be sent to the country in accordance with the peace plan is apparently now on its way.  It is unlikely however that the decision to suspend Syria will be reversed.  The fact that Syria is apparently being excluded from the meeting that will decide the question of its suspension even though it has not in fact so far been suspended is itself a bad sign.

Syria’s suspension from the Arab League will pave the way for further action.  Over the next few weeks we are likely to see attempts made to recognise a rival government formed by opposition factions along the lines of the Transitional National Council that was formed in Libya.  There will probably be more economic and political sanctions on the country.  Arms supplies to the rebels through Lebanon will be stepped up.  There may be incursions into Syrian territory from Turkey.  At some point there will doubtless be fresh demands for a Resolution from the Security Council of the sort that was vetoed in October.  Whether this succeeds or fails the way will then be open for military action “to protect Syria’s civilians”.  As was the case in Libya the true objective will be regime change.