Monday, 29 July 2013

Edward Snowden's Not the Story. The Fate of the Internet Is

The net is finished as a global network and US firms' cloud services cannot be trusted
by John Naughton                   Guardian/UK                       July 28, 2013

Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story. The story is what he has revealed about the hidden wiring of our networked world. Let us summarise what Snowden has achieved thus far.  Without him, we would not know how the National Security Agency (NSA) had been able to access the emails, Facebook accounts and videos of citizens across the world; or how it had secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans; or how, through a secret court, it has been able to bend nine US internet companies to its demands for access to their users' data.
Similarly, without Snowden, we would not be debating whether the US government should have turned surveillance into a huge, privatised business, offering data-mining contracts to private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton and, in the process, high-level security clearance to thousands of people who shouldn't have it. Nor would there be – finally – a serious debate between Europe (excluding the UK, which in these matters is just an overseas franchise of the US) and the United States about where the proper balance between freedom and security lies.
These are pretty significant outcomes and they're just the first-order consequences of Snowden's activities. As far as most of our mass media are concerned, though, they have gone largely unremarked. Instead, we have been fed a constant stream of journalistic pap – speculation about Snowden's travel plans, asylum requests, state of mind, physical appearance, etc. Here are some of the things we should be thinking about:
The first is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered. It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, ie divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated. Now, Balkanisation is a certainty.
Second, the issue of internet governance is about to become very contentious. Given what we now know about how the US and its satraps have been abusing their privileged position in the global infrastructure, the idea that the western powers can be allowed to continue to control it has become untenable.
Third, the Obama administration's "internet freedom agenda" has been exposed as patronising cant. Today the rhetoric of the 'internet freedom agenda' looks as trustworthy as George Bush's 'freedom agenda' after Abu Ghraib.
That's all at nation-state level. But the Snowden revelations also have implications for you and me.
They tell us, for example, that no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their "cloud" services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you're thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.
And if you think that that sounds like the paranoid fantasising of a newspaper columnist, then consider what Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, had to say on the matter recently. "If businesses or governments think they might be spied on," she said, "they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out. Why would you pay someone else to hold your commercial or other secrets, if you suspect or know they are being shared against your wishes? Front or back door – it doesn't matter – any smart person doesn't want the information shared at all. Customers will act rationally and providers will miss out on a great opportunity."
Spot on. So when your chief information officer proposes to use the Amazon or Google cloud as a data-store for your company's confidential documents, tell him where to file the proposal. In the shredder.     [Abridged]
© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
John Naughton is professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University

The Pope takes on his predecessor’s legacy

Pope Francis will wrestle with the curia and the Vatican Bank
Editorial                 Independent/UK                 28 July 2013
In Brazil during his maiden papal voyage, Francis I has spelled out with breathtaking bluntness the ways in which he differs from his immediate predecessor. From the moment he stepped out on the balcony above St Peter’s back in March and greeted the crowd with the homely salutation “Buona sera!” it was clear that this Pope’s trademark was going to be straightforwardness. But considering that Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI is alive and well and living a few dozen metres away from him in Vatican City, the criticism in his latest speech was remarkably blunt. It was also extremely pertinent.
Speaking to Brazil’s bishops, Francis said, “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people… Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs… perhaps too cold… perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas… perhaps… a relic of the past.”
Benedict’s many critics within the Church and without could not have put their problems with his papacy more succinctly. His was a highbrow idea of the Church’s mission, the view of a prelate from the heart of Europe who had spent all his working life ruminating on abstruse questions of dogma.  Initiatives such as restoring the Latin Mass did nothing at all to broaden the Church’s appeal, quite the reverse. But Benedict seemed content to let the Church wither in its purity. 
By contrast Francis, who is regarded with respect bordering on awe for the courage he displayed confronting drug gangs in some of the most wretched corners of Buenos Aires, and who has watched in alarm as masses of Latin Americans cross over to Protestant and Pentecostal Churches, wants to concentrate on the essentials of church teaching, and to take the message out into the street. This approach takes its inspiration from Latin American liberation theology, stripped of the Marxist underpinnings that made it anathema to Pope John Paul II.
But Francis does not limit his ambitions to re-evangelising the Church: he aims to bring the same new broom to the Vatican itself. As the first native Italian-speaking Pope for 35 years –   his parents were Italian – and one who is not tainted by being a Vatican insider, he has made it clear that he plans to take on the might of the Roman curia, which contemptuously shrugged off Benedict’s feeble attempts to reform it. He intends to do the same for the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank. If he makes headway with all of these formidable challenges, he will leave the Catholic Church in dramatically better shape than when he found it. We wish this energetic 76-year-old well in the enterprise.
Might he, in addition, turn his attention to the questions that make the Church seem locked into a view of human society that belongs to another age: its attitude to homosexuality, to women priests, to contraception, abortion, stem cell research – all those toxic issues that no pontiff until now has dared to confront?
There is no point in liberal Catholics getting their hopes up: so overwhelmingly dominant are the conservatives within the College of Cardinals that Father Bergoglio would never have emerged as Pope Francis if there were the slightest question hanging over his doctrinal orthodoxy. Yet even in this no-go area, his very different style is bringing change: he has fiercely criticised the refusal of priests to baptise the children of single mothers because they were born outside the sanctity of marriage, for  example. “Those who clericalise the Church,” he declared, “are today’s hypocrites.” It is hard to imagine his predecessor saying anything of the sort.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Britain's royal family

Cut this anti-democratic dynasty out of politics       The monarchy embodies inequality and fosters conservatism.
Seumas Milne                            Guardian/UK                         23 July 2013
As a rule, progressive Britain prefers to ignore the monarchy. First, it's embarrassing: 364 years after we first abolished it and long after most of the rest of the world dispensed with such feudal relics, we're still lumbered with one. Second, there are always more important things to confront – from rampant corporate power and escalating inequality to incessant war and the climate crisis. And last, the media and political class form such a sycophantic ideological phalanx around the institution that dissent is treated as, at best, weird and miserabilist.
But ignoring it leaves a festering anti-democratic dynasticism at the heart of our political system. The descendants of warlords, robber barons, invaders and German princelings – so long as they aren't Catholics – have automatic pride of place at the pinnacle of Britain's constitution.  Far from uniting the country, the monarchy's role is seen as illegitimate and offensive by millions of its citizens, and entrenches hereditary privilege at the heart of public life. While British governments preach democracy around the world, they preside over an undemocratic system at home with an unelected head of state and an appointed second chamber at the core of it.
Meanwhile celebrity culture and a relentless public relations machine have given a new lease of life to a dysfunctional family institution.  If the royal family were simply the decorative constitutional adornment its supporters claim, punctuating the lives of grateful subjects with pageantry and street parties, its deferential culture and invented traditions might be less corrosive. But contrary to what is routinely insisted, the monarchy retains significant unaccountable powers and influence. In extreme circumstances, they could still be decisive.
Several key crown prerogative powers, exercised by ministers without reference to parliament on behalf of the monarchy, have now been put on a statutory footing. But the monarch retains the right to appoint the prime minister and dissolve parliament. By convention, these powers are only exercised on the advice of government or party leaders. But it's not impossible to imagine, as constitutional experts concede, such conventions being overridden in a social and political crisis – for instance where parties were fracturing and alternative parliamentary majorities could be formed. The British establishment are past masters at such constitutional sleights of hand
A striking feature of global politics in recent decades has been the resurgence of the hereditary principle across political systems: from the father and son Bush presidencies in the US and the string of family successions in south Asian parliamentary democracies to the Kim dynasty in North Korea, along with multiple other autocracies. Some of that is driven by the kind of factors that produced hereditary systems in the first place, such as pressure to reduce conflict over political successions. But it's also a reflection of the decline of ideological and class politics.
The English overthrew their monarchy in the 1640s, before the social foundations were in place for a viable republic – and the later constitutional settlement took the sting out of the issue. But it didn't solve it, and the legacy is today's half-baked democracy. You'd never know it from the way the monarchy is treated in British public life, but polling in recent years shows between 20% and 40% think the country would be better off without it, and most still believe it won't last. That proportion is likely to rise when hapless Charles replaces the present Queen.
There are of course other much more powerful obstacles to social advance in Britain than the monarchy, but it remains a reactionary and anti-democratic drag. Republics have usually emerged from wars or revolutions. But there's no need for tumbrils, just elections. It's not a very radical demand, but an elected head of state is a necessary step to democratise Britain and weaken the grip of deferential conservatism and anti-politics. People could vote for Prince William or Kate Middleton if they wanted and the royals could carry on holding garden parties and travelling around in crowns and gold coaches. The essential change is to end the constitutional role of an unelected dynasty. It might even be the saving of this week's royal baby.        [Abridged]
Twitter: @SeumasMilne

Why are we so friendly with Burma?

Britain surely knows how bad things are for Burma's minorities. The country's record on human rights remains appalling. 
Emanuel Stoakes               Independent/UK              23 July 2013
As expected, the visit of Burma’s President Thein Sein to Britain last week was hailed by both nations as a highly symbolic event, a landmark reaffirming the new status that the former pariah state, now courted by the West, enjoys.  Accordingly, new promises unveiled by David Cameron’s recent guest around the time of his stay were presented by partial pundits as a sure sign of the Asian nation’s steady movement toward deep and lasting reform.
Two key announcements were made: that all remaining political prisoners would be released by the end of the year and that a notorious border force accused of appalling abuses against minorities would be disbanded. While these moves are to be welcomed, they are sadly unlikely to portend any serious change in state policy on civil and human rights, regardless of their PR value. This is because Burma remains a gehenna for dissidents and many minorities.
Even though prisoners of conscience may soon be released, many of the junta-era laws intended to criminalise dissent remain firmly in place - meaning that while the government gains plaudits for freeing dissidents wrongly imprisoned in the first place, others will continue to be detained unjustly.  In recent weeks alone, dozens have been arrested for offences linked to criticism of the government under these laws; one of them, Wai Phyo, was arrested - ironically enough- for calling for the release of political prisoners. Freeing imprisoned critics of the government does not in itself mean that they will be allowed to resume peaceful political activity.
Many of those emancipated in the celebrated mass pardons of recent years have been monitored and arbitrarily re-arrested after their discharge from prison. One of them, whom I met in Rangoon, told me how he was forced to sign a document prior to leaving jail, which made him liable for future imprisonment if he publicly denounced the government again. While in incarceration he was brutally tortured, and still suffers from severe post-traumatic stress, a condition made worse by the ongoing harassment he says he experiences at the hands of law enforcement.
Human rights:     Besides the above,  the military-drafted constitution ensures the latter’s stranglehold on power.  The President and his government are still neglecting to positively engage with much more urgent rights issues. These include the continuing vulnerability and persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the west of the country, who, according to authoritative assessments face the prospect of genocide if little is done to increase their security. Government policy on this front remains utterly abysmal - and possibly criminal.
Britain surely knows how bad things are for the Rohingya. A damning and highly credible body of evidence contained in a report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in April indicates that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated against the minority with the complicity of state agencies.
Naypyidaw refuses to meaningfully address the allegations made by Human Rights Watch. Thein Sein himself dismissed claims of military involvement in the violence as “pure fabrication”, even though very real mass graves have been found. On Friday he referred to claims of ethnic cleansing as falsehoods.   It has also emerged that the Na Sa Ka border force closed by the government just before the visit to Britain may have been done so in order to side-step sanctions, and not as an act of goodwill. The group whose record on human rights is truly abominable, continue to enjoy impunity for a host of past crimes, alleged to include rape, torture and murder.
Despite all this, London has seen fit to pursue lucrative trade deals with Burma and revealed last week that it will develop ties with its military, within which are units implicated in the atrocities documented by HRW. Arms sales have also been announced. Instead of insisting on accountability and clear action on the Rohingya situation from Burma prior to deepening relations, the UK seems content to hop into bed with a government that has consistently failed to live up to its pledges on human rights. As a consequence of policies such as this, life continues to be miserable for the latter minority. Matthew Smith, author of the latter HRW report, expressed the view that, with regard to the Rohingya, in Burma “human rights violations continue with impunity...
There has been no accountability and no justice.” “The lack of humanitarian aid to displaced Rohingya a full year after initial displacement is indefensible and amounts to the international crime of persecution. Tens of thousands are going without basic aid”, he added.                     [Abridged]

Dalai Lama in Dunedin

By Nigel Benson          Otago Daily Times                  June 12, 2013
The Dalai Lama charmed and chuckled his way into the heart of Dunedin yesterday.
The spiritual leader was officially welcomed by a delegation of about 50 people from the Dunedin Interfaith Council on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral yesterday morning. His Holiness had a message for people of all faiths, University of Otago chaplain Rev Greg Hughson said. "We wanted to show our respects to a man of international peace and goodwill. We honour him for his commitment to peace and the way he transcends boundaries. He models that for all of us."
After the welcome, the Dalai Lama held a question and answer session for 550 University of Otago staff and students at the St David lecture theatre, before his lunchtime public talk at the town hall. The venue was, appropriately, packed to the gods, with all 2100 tickets selling before the event.
"Your presence in our city brings great joy," former Dunedin mayor Dame Sukhi Turner said, in introduction. The talk was based on the Dalai Lama's book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, about living a happy life in a challenging modern world.
"There is no formality, no seriousness; just talk. I treat you as a long-time friend," he said. “I consider myself one of you. The way we were born is the same and the way we die is the same. You have positive and negative emotions. Me too. We are all seeking a happy life.”
"Trust is the key aspect for friendship. With trust comes openness. An unhappy person, ultimately, finds a lot of difficulties. Suffering is caused by ignorance." It was the 77-year-old's third visit to Dunedin, after visiting in 1992 and 1996.
"A lot of people are sceptical about religion. Religion can be spoiled due to lack of moral ethics," he said. "As Buddhists, there are no absolutes. Everything is relative. We need constant effort to create harmony through mutual understanding.
"The Buddhism tradition is about cause and effect, cause and effect; not about a creator. Faith and reason must go together. Some people say Buddhism is not a religion which, in some ways, is true. Modern science is very important to learn from for Buddhists. Scepticism is very important. Just to accept is dangerous. Remain sceptical, investigate what is the reason, and then experiment."
He was also funny, treating his translator, Lotsawa Tenzin, as a comedic sidekick, teasing Dame Sukhi about her diamond rings and frequently punctuating his anecdotes with gales of boyish laughter. He joked that his face had aged slowly "because I'm the Dalai Lama".
"Some people feel that I have special power and healing power. That is nonsense," he said, before revealing with a chuckle a spot on his head where he needed ointment to heal a skin complaint. However, he also delivered a warning. "The gap between rich and poor is untenable and our present lifestyle is impossible. It is almost like suicide. So we have to take it very seriously," he said. "I think world peace is much more realistic now. More people are talking than they were last century. I think the change is not because people are more holy, but because the last century became a century of fear, suffering and violence. I hope the 21st century will be a peaceful century."
- Otago Daily Times   Dalai Lama: - National - NZ Herald News

Friday, 19 July 2013

Faith and Reason

By Ian Harris        Otago Daily Times        July 12, 2013

I suppose I should be grateful that various ministers, priests and lay folk have been moved to write to The Otago Daily Times pointing out the error of my ways. Responses to columns over the past few months reveal a certainty of belief in the face of a changing world that I can almost envy.

In essence, they think differently: it follows they must be right. Their understanding of faith is nailed down tight. No question, doubt, or new knowledge can unsettle it. An inerrant Bible or their church’s teaching provides both source and authority for their convictions. Anyone who suggests there could be other approaches must be mistaken, ignorant, deluded, or perverse. There is a fundamental flaw in all that. They are defending an interpretation of faith as if it were the full, final, and only possible truth.

Well, interpretations are human and can change over time, as the history of Christianity shows. In fact, they must change, or they lose touch with a society and a world that is changing around them. Religious interpretations must make sense within a culture at each stage of its evolution. Every generation must wrestle with its core faith heritage and find ways to express it persuasively in and for its own time. Honest wrestling comes with an openness to letting go of past interpretations that no longer compute. In a living tradition, faithfulness cannot be sustained by insisting that nothing must change

So in a secular culture such as ours, it serves no useful purpose to cling to interpretations of Christian experience that stem from a very different stage of human understanding. To do so is the surest way to relegate Christianity to little more than a quaint relic of a bygone era. Each of those stages answered a central religious question of its time in a way that satisfied their contemporaries.

How exactly does Jesus relate to God? A creed devised by 4th-century Greeks hammered that out: they were “of one substance”. Is ancient Greek philosophy a threat or an aid to faith? Medieval scholars found a way to blend it with the Christian message. What shall I do to be saved to eternal life? By faith alone, said the Protestant reformers in the 1500s, and dispensed entirely with the Catholic Church.

For people who find the old frameworks of thought still cogent, the old answers still resonate. But our western world-view has moved on. Those are not burning questions in a secular culture where belief in heaven and hell has largely evaporated, life after death is well down the list of priorities, and sin has morphed from a spiritual issue with eternal implications to a social and psychological phenomenon.

The Bible, moreover, is now seen to be invaluable not for its supposed infallibility, but as a volume brimming with human interpretations of human experiences of God in many different circumstances over 1000 years. If its authors are truly a model, it is perfectly legitimate for each generation to revisit concepts of God and the sacred, just as those writers did. To move on from old world-views and find new interpretations is not to take leave of Christianity, but to discover it anew.

And that is happening. A new reformation is under way. Christianity, for example, is unique in its central affirmation that God entered human life in Jesus. This raised all human life to the possibility of a new level of consciousness and responsibility. That doesn’t erase any idea of the sacred or divine, but relocates it at the heart of our life on earth.
Insisting that only centuries-old interpretations of faith can be valid is the surest way to push religion off into the sunset on an ebbing tide. It is also harmful. A refusal by many in the churches to allow people even to know there are other options can cause pain, doubt, and defection. Two comments from women who spent decades immersed in church life illustrate that:
“What a pity the churches have kept silent and denied Christian people access to the thinking of modern scholarship. And how much pain its devotees could be saved as they are left to ponder their own apparently heretical views.”    “I think many lives were shaped by established views on politics and religion, neither considered an accepted topic of conversation until people like Professor Geering brought forbidden thinking into the open. I can’t help thinking how completely different our lives would have been if communication had been more open.”
It’s not too late.

The GCSB bill

By Dame Anne Salmond              NZ Herald              13 July 2013
Dame Anne Salmond says it is imperative that New Zealanders stand up for democratic freedoms.
In 2007, John Key, then Leader of the Opposition, gave a powerful speech to the New Zealand Press Club against the Electoral Finance Bill. He declared: "Here in New Zealand we often take our democratic freedoms for granted.  We think they will always be there. We have a Bill of Rights which is supposed to protect our right to freedom of expression. What on earth could go wrong?"
I have a different view. I believe what Thomas Jefferson said - that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. There are times when we have to stand up for our rights, and the rights of our neighbours and friends, and indeed the rights of people we totally disagree with, or else these rights will begin to erode away.
I agree with these sentiments, absolutely. New Zealanders must stand up for their democratic rights when they are threatened, or they'll lose them. Who could have imagined that in 2013, this same political leader would be presiding over an assault upon the democratic rights of New Zealanders? This is a matter of such gravity that last month, the Law Society felt impelled to report to the United Nations that in New Zealand "a number of recent legislative measures are fundamentally in conflict with the rule of law".
Extraordinary though it may seem, this statement is no more than the truth. In its report to the United Nations, the Law Society lists a series of recent acts that have allowed the Executive to use regulation to override Parliament, that deny citizens the right to legal representation and cancel their right to appeal to the courts to uphold their rights under the law.
The Law Society also draws attention to the use of Supplementary Order Papers and urgency to avoid proper Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. They express their concern that a number of bills formally declared by the Attorney-General to be in breach of the Bill of Rights have recently been enacted.
This report does not mention other key defects in the law-making process in New Zealand at present. These include the willingness of a minority government to pass laws that impinge on the rights and wellbeing of New Zealanders at the request of foreign corporations - Warner Brothers, for instance, or SkyCity and various oil companies. None of these deals, which amount to "legislation for sale", can claim a democratic mandate.
When a body as authoritative and dispassionate as the Law Society feels forced to report to the United Nations that the Government in New Zealand is acting in conflict with the rule of law, all New Zealanders should be very worried. The GCSB bill currently before Parliament, however, trumps all other recent breaches of democratic freedoms in New Zealand. The GCSB, an intelligence agency that was established to protect New Zealand citizens from external threats, is surrounded by scandal, including an improper process leading to the appointment of its director, an inglorious saga surrounding the arrest of Kim Dotcom and associates, and accusations that the agency has been illegally spying on New Zealanders.
Under the proposed legislation, however, this dubious body would be transformed from a foreign intelligence agency into one with that spies on New Zealand citizens and residents. As the Law Society states in its submission, "The bill is intrusive. It is inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression and freedom from unreasonable search or seizure under New Zealand law."
The GCSB bill would give the agency sweeping powers, with the only effective controls in the hands of politicians. The fact that the bill is being dealt with under urgency raises further suspicions about its purposes and intentions. Given the recent record of legislative attacks on human rights in this country, very few New Zealanders could be confident that such powers, if granted, would not be abused for partisan political purposes.
Today, the former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson called for an "apolitical, but robust debate about this kind of legislation". Like the Law Society, he is speaking truth to power. When governments go feral, citizens of all political persuasions and from all backgrounds must stand up and demand that their representatives in Parliament - from whatever political party - do their job, and uphold democratic freedoms in New Zealand.
If citizens and their representatives are supine while democratic rights are trampled, we are culpable, along with our leaders. Again, John Key's rousing speech to the Press Club in 2007 puts the case to perfection: "This is not just a poorly written bill. This is a dangerous bill. It is dangerous for all of us as individuals, it is dangerous for our democracy, and it is dangerous for New Zealand."
“We should rightly be proud of our democracy. It is a very real New Zealand achievement and we should celebrate it. A lot of other countries never made it. Plenty have tried democracy and let it slip through their fingers. A quiet, obedient, and docile population; a culture of passivity and apathy; a meek acceptance of what politicians say and do - these things are not consistent with democracy. A healthy democracy requires the active participation of citizens in public life and in public debates. Without this participation, democracy begins to wither and becomes the preserve of a small, select political elite."
All I can say is, Amen.
. Anthropologist and author Dame Anne Salmond is the current New Zealander of the Year.
 Peace Movement Aotearoa,         PO Box 9314, Wellington 6141, Aotearoa New Zealand
PMA adds: Also, in case you missed last night's news coverage of the Prime Minister's reaction to the Human Rights Commission report on surveillance (circulated yesterday), the quote - "I actually don't think it was a very good submission at all; they need to pull their socks up. If they're going to continue to be a government-funded organisation they should meet the deadlines like everyone else did" - is included in a Herald article, 'Watchdog repels PM's attack on spy report'.  The article correctly points out that the report was not a submission to the Intelligence and Security Committee, as the Prime Minister appears to think, but rather a rare use of the Commission's direct reporting powers under the Human Rights Act 1993.
A warning to New Zealanders keep hold of democracy
Dame Anne Salmond        13 July 2013

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Egypt's coup: a ruinous intervention

Those who believe the Egyptian army's priority is to preserve freedom will soon be disappointed
Jonathan Steele                   Guardian/UK                        3 July 2013
Whether the Egyptian army's actions today and over the previous two days amount to a full-scale military coup can be debated. But what is clear beyond doubt is that they amount to a ruinous intervention in the politics of a country that had breathed the air of democracy for the first time for decades.

An army that appeared to be retreating from politics after the departure of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 has stepped back into the arena again, first by issuing an ultimatum to an elected president to obey it or resign, and then by going through with its threat and laying out a road map that deposes him and suspends the constitution.

Rejecting the results of elections that were widely deemed to be free and fair and setting aside a country's basic law is a step that no army should ever take. The fact that the army's move has been welcomed by many of the revolutionaries who first had the courage to go into the streets against Mubarak in 2011 is a desperate commentary on their political naivety and shortsightedness.
This is not to say that President Mohamed Morsi is blameless. The political charge sheet against him is long and detailed, the worst offence being his issuance last November of high-handed decrees to extend his powers. But he quickly rescinded them after protests. During the latest turmoil on the streets, in spite of his defiant words about being ready to die, he again showed a willingness to compromise by offering to form a government of national unity and accelerate elections to a new parliament. But to make him entirely responsible for the disappointments of the past two years is absurd. It was not he but the supreme administrative court that dissolved the people's assembly, the lower house of parliament. It is not he but the leaders of the opposition parties who produced a government that was largely dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi invited them to join the cabinet but they refused.

It certainly isn't the president who should be blamed for the failure of the Egyptian economy to provide enough jobs for tens of thousands of young people who are graduating every year, let alone for an older generation that is out of work. Morsi went along with the International Monetary Fund's plans for an end to subsidies on food and utility prices that would only create more austerity, but so did most of the established opposition leaders who are now clamouring for power. As for the failure of the tourism sector to revive, the main reason for the chaos and instability that put off outsiders rests with the constant street provocations of demonstrators.
Much has rightly been made of the threat to Egyptian democracy that comes from the so-called deep state: the still entrenched bureaucracy made up of officials of Mubarak's National Democratic party, elitist entrepreneurs who were his cronies, and an army hierarchy that exploited state assets or profited from newly privatised industries and trading companies. Some accused Morsi of joining the ranks of this authoritarian elite. But the real charge was that he did too little to challenge them or their footsoldiers, a corrupt and brutal police force. The irony of the events of the past few days is that those who are so energetically denouncing the president in Tahrir Square and the streets of other cities are falling into the trap made by the very elite they want to bring under control.
It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters are social conservatives who may pose a threat to some Egyptians' civil rights. But the biggest and most immediate danger to the country is to the political rights that all Egyptians won with the overthrow of Mubarak. The abolition of one-party rule, the right of all kinds of political groups to organise freely, the lifting of media censorship, and the virtual curtailment of imprisonment for dissent are benefits that should not be abandoned lightly.
Those who believe that the military's main objective is to preserve the new freedoms will soon be disappointed. From Chile in 1973 to Pakistan in 1999 (and several times before that), long is the history of military takeovers that were welcomed in their first hours and days but regretted in the years of despair that followed. For Egypt to follow in that tradition is a disaster.

Why I cannot rejoice in Morsi’s downfall

How naive we all were when this Spring started with the first fall of an Arab dictator
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown                   Guardian/UK                             7 July 2013
On Thursday night, I was at an event organised by Islamic Relief, which raises millions of pounds from Muslims to fight global hunger.
Ramadhan starts tomorrow, a month of fasting and giving, a good time for such charities and to reaffirm the best aspects of our faith. But events intervened as always, and instead of tranquillity and goodwill in the room, at many tables people were arguing heatedly about the crisis in Egypt, some supporting the military takeover, others lamenting the quick, callous demolition of a freely elected government.
Three men and a woman were so agitated they almost came to blows. In the toilet one Arab lady sobbed and said her heart was in pieces. She supported the Muslim Brotherhood because, she told me, her old mother-in-law had been given free medical care by a doctor from the movement. “And now again, the army will torture and kill these good people.” Her fears have been brutally confirmed. By the time I write this, about 50 Morsi supporters have been killed by the army and the leaders of the Brotherhood are in prison or house arrest.
I myself have mixed feelings about the rapid deposal of the Islamic government after only a year in power. The political and moral lines dart about in my head, making crazy patterns, and ethical imperatives seem to be crashing into each other. I unconditionally abhor the deeply conservative, Islamic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Cairo, after the fall of Mubarak, I saw almost no female hair and met some very aggressive men who asked me why I didn’t wear a headscarf. Though most Caireans were still warm and hospitable, they clearly felt under social pressure to conform to and display conspicuous religiosity. This was not the Cairo I had previously visited. Several dejected intellectuals told me the country would soon be like Iran. Morsi’s victory was a blow to them.
His rule, as we know, was pushing the Muslim Brotherhood ideology on to the citizenry; he grabbed control of the courts, manipulated the nascent political reform and rewrote the constitution. Torture, corruption and state thuggery were back and the economy was slowly collapsing. He used democracy but was no democrat. And yet, and yet, I cannot rejoice in Morsi’s downfall, the way his party is now hounded and this abrupt and swift abdication of fundamental democratic principles and practice. Democratic elections won’t always produce the results that true democrats want. That is the price humans pay for this imperfect but most inclusive political arrangement. To expel and exclude a popular Egyptian segment from power is wrong, as wrong as punishing Palestinians for voting in Hamas.
Good Egyptian friends, who have fought long to rid their nation of despotism, are euphoric and support the military coup, which is what it is, though they say it is not. They know their own nation better than I do, of course, and their opinions and feelings matter a good deal more than mine. But still, Egypt’s spring seems to be turning dark, losing sight of its ideals, and I am nonplussed and fearful.
How naive we all were when this Spring started with the first amazing fall of an Arab dictator in Tunisia in 2011, followed by uprisings in almost all Middle Eastern and North African Muslim nations. It was a new dawn for those millions who had only ever known oppression. Now Libya is divided and bloody, Syria is purgatory with no release in sight as Assad holds on to power, while sectarianism and fanaticism divide the opposition and make them into monsters, some as bad as the regime.
Elsewhere, as in Bahrain, the autocrats who have held on are more ruthless than ever. They are buying bigger and more brutal arms – from us. And the people are cowed, wishing none of this had ever happened, saying better the devils you know than chaos. All the West can and should now do is watch and hope Egypt returns to civilian rule. No other intervention, overt or covert, will help. It’s a mess. Only Egyptians can sort it and make theirs a nation for all its diverse citizens. I trust they will, or how will the world ever believe in progress again?           [Abridged]

Hope for a prison lifer is exhausting

But for those serving a life sentence who cannot find a purpose, the prospects are bleak

Erwin James                         Guardian/UK                            7 July 2013
This morning I posted a letter to a friend in prison in the US. I began my letter with the usual niceties: "I hope you're well and healthy and staying positive …" After that, it took me a while to think of what to say next. My friend was convicted of murder when he was 15 years old and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. So far, he has served 15 years and probably still has a few decades to go. Whenever I think of him, I can't help wondering how he manages to keep going. What is the point?
Last week it was reported that a man in a UK prison who recently began a life sentence for murder with minimum tariff of 30 years had written to Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, asking the same question. Not surprisingly he couldn't see a future beyond the prison gates. "I'm not going to want to get out in 2043," he wrote. "If the state pension exists it will barely cover the basics; I'm likely to commit a minor offence just to get the free bed and board HMP service offers. When I become eligible for parole I'll be 66 years old. I'll have no money, no contact with anybody on the outside, no house or other material possessions.

As a "lifer" now out on parole, I remember all too well the struggle to find a reason to get out of my prison bed in the morning. In the beginning, for 23 hours a day, all I had was a bed, a table, a chair and a plastic bucket for a toilet. The future was just a long, dark tunnel. My trial judge had given me a minimum term to serve of 14 years, but being released was never my priority. I was just glad that my old pain-inflicting days were over. It took a while, but eventually I discovered a purpose. I decided to try to find a better way to live. There were moments when I eyed the bars on my cell window and considered a swift end. But blessed, or cursed, with a strong will to live, I kept going. On prison wings and landings, lifers are the walking dead. You're alive but you're not living.
I sent my friend in the US a still from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, signed by the stars Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. I wanted to make him smile, so on the back I wrote: "Hope will set you free … " The truth is that hope for a lifer is exhausting. It stops you sleeping and can drive you insane – much safer to expect nothing and never to be disappointed. You know your crimes, the grief you have caused, the shame and the guilt you live with – and the amends you can never make. Sometimes it feels like the whole world hates you, but not as much as you hate yourself. Against the odds, with help from various prison professionals, I made progress.

My friend in the US is not so lucky. He gets little help from the authorities. As an LWP (life without parole) prisoner, he is excluded from education classes or any other official activity aimed at personal development. So he taught himself to paint. After years of borrowing and begging materials, he now creates the most remarkable images of wildlife, using leaves he finds in the prison exercise yard for canvasses. His art has brought him purpose.
For lifers who cannot find purpose, the prospects are bleak. The man who wrote to Inside Time said: "I see Dignitas on the news and can't help thinking it makes more logical sense … Put me in a chemical coma – wouldn't that be cheaper?" He's not alone in his desolation. In 2007 in a letter to the Italian president signed by 310 fellow prisoners serving life, convicted mobster Carmelo Musumeci, who had been inside for 17 years, asked for "our life sentence to be changed to a death sentence". Musumeci said he and his fellow lifers were "tired of dying a little every day". In that same year, 18 life-sentence prisoners in the UK took their own lives.

There are around 13,000 men, women and children serving indeterminate sentences in the UK, almost 8,000 serving mandatory life. England and Wales has the highest number of lifers in Europe. In the last 10 years, of the 724 people who took their own lives in our prisons, 114 were serving indeterminate sentences – 90 were mandatory lifers convicted of murder. Juilet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust says: "Failure to support and manage work with life-sentenced prisoners is leading to an accumulation of lifers in our prisons. Noms [National Offender Management Service] is making efforts to enable life-sentence prisoners to progress, but the system needs further review to be fully effective and to allow people some hope in their lives."

Hope may be exhausting and dangerous, but one thing I did learn in prison is that there is no such thing as false hope – there is only hope.

I know Abu Qatada – he's no terrorist

Victoria Brittain                          Guardian/UK                            7 July 2013
The voluntary departure from Britain of Omar Othman, better known as Abu Qatada, is a triumph for the independence of the judiciary over this and previous governments' high-profile attempts to send him to face a trial in Jordan, where the evidence against him was obtained by torture. Our judiciary has safeguarded a prominent political refugee who our society chose to persecute in a disgraceful way. Since 2007 as many as 12 senior British judges in various courts have recognised the torture origins of the evidence against him – which successive prime ministers and home secretaries have, until a few weeks ago, publicly put all their political weight into ignoring.

The US, aided by the UK, on behalf of its key ally Jordan, went so far as to kidnap UK residents Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi on a business trip in Africa, torture them in Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and take them to Guantánamo Bay in order to interrogate them about Othman. When those men sued the British authorities for what they had done, parliament was persuaded to create secret courts to adjudicate on secret defences. The British judges' success is that the Jordanian government has now made a change in its law that applies only to Othman and no one else. In his case the burden of proof is now on the prosecutor to show that any statement made against him in court was not produced by torture or any other form of ill-treatment – a reversal of the previous situation.

In addition, his safety in Jordan is enormously enhanced by the new conditions agreed, which include his detention in a civilian facility, the exclusion of the Jordanian intelligence service from any access to him, monitoring by an independent human rights body, and a commitment that Britain will be contacted if there are concerns. But this 12-year saga has left poison in our society. The home secretary, prime minister, mayor of London and countless MPs – including senior Labour party figures – have made Othman the most demonised individual in Britain.
This state-sanctioned hatred of one man is encapsulated by David Cameron's words: "I am completely fed up with the fact that this man is still at large in our country." MPs suggested that, as the courts had failed to remove him, the home secretary should just put him on a plane – even if that broke the law. This atmosphere encouraged the English Defence League and its offshoots in their violence and vitriol against Muslims in general, and in particular in the weekly mob besieging of the Othmans' family house – when the address was supposed to be kept secret by a court order for their safety. Those were terrifying Saturdays for the family, but it took a court case to stop it.

For 12 years Othman has been the subject of immigration measures, which have seen him imprisoned in high-risk units for longer than any other non-convicted person in modern British history. Mr Justice Mitting in the special appeals immigration commission, who was then responsible for granting him bail against the government's wishes, described the period he had been held as "lamentable … extraordinary … hardly, if at all, acceptable".
All this began with Othman's detention in Belmarsh prison among a dozen Muslim refugees arrested post-9/11 and held without charge for over two years. He and his family supported others through the stress of detention.
After the House of Lords declared their detention illegal, the men were put under house arrest with rigorous conditions, which some have broken. However, even that restricted family life could be enjoyed for only 15 months by Othman, whose bail was revoked three times – in hearings that relied mainly on secret evidence and the allegation that he would attempt to leave the country. Given the level of surveillance he was under and his own code of honour eloquently expressed to the judge, the prospect of absconding could not be taken seriously.
No one has charged him with anything, except the Jordanians with the torture-tainted evidence. No one has pointed to anything controversial that he is alleged to have said since the mid-1990s. At that time he aligned himself with Islamic revolutionary movements opposing regimes that have now fallen, or which barely cling to power. Our security services and politicians turned this man into an Islamic counter-terrorism myth. If instead they had chosen to talk to him, as I have many times, they would have found that the man behind the myth is a scholar with wide intellectual and cultural interests. He wrote books while he was in prison. His home is filled with books.
I have been a friend of Othman's wife and daughters for some years, and have had many opportunities to talk to him in prison, as well as some when he was at home on bail. I've been struck by his dignity and lack of bitterness over the treatment he and his family have suffered and I believe that, rather than being scapegoated, his moral standards could have been useful in engaging Muslim youth and healing the wounds in our divided society.                     [Abridged]