Rumblings of Delhi belly

Thousands marching in cities across the country. Politicians vilified. Demands for change. While the media spotlight has been on Egypt, the public have also been on the move in India.

The clamour has been over the increasing corruption that the nation fears is infecting their politicians and business leaders. Nepotism, embezzlement and abuse of powers are all charges that have been levelled at the political class. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has stood firm and said he will not ‘spare’ anyone found guilty of corruption.

In December, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition headed a huge anti-sleaze demonstration in the capital. However the latest protests were not party-specific and it seems that the public is tired of all political corruption.

India is at an interesting global intersection at the moment and must aim publicly to clean up politics to ensure the continued smooth running of the fast-developing country. In December it signed an historic arms trade deal with Russia, deepening the ties between the two BRIC countries. It is undergoing a census of its 1.2 billion citizens. Kashmir remains a sticking-point in the region but it can provide India with a platform for reformist and more open dialogue in the future, even though it will never accept secessionist plans.

The sub-continent is in a time of trial. Pakistan, despite the exciting news for adrenaline-loving snow enthusiasts that a ski resort has opened in the Swat Valley, is nearing boiling point. The war in Afghanistan is going on inside its borders, sectarian violence is increasing and as the pressure increasing on politicians, the risks become ever more deadly.

But the Indian government ought not to discard talks with Pakistan simply because of the violence and the historic entrenchment over the area. India can continue to grow politically and this would help it grow into its shoes as the second-biggest country in the world, a role it might be able to play in the years to come on all levels – not just in terms of population.


Friday prayers can wait

Is the European Union stalling over policy towards the Islamic world?

Recent events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have not gone totally unnoticed in Europe but there was a significant delay in releasing official reaction to the unrest which began in December. These events were occurring just across the sea, indeed the Italian island of Pantelleria lies only 45 miles or so from the Tunisian coast. And the EU is the largest trading partner for the Maghreb. Why was there no coherent policy announcement?

European ministers are dedicated at the moment to sorting out the financial crisis and trying to ensure that neither Spain nor Portugal goes the way of Greece and Ireland. Reacting to the downfall of the government in Tunisia raised confusion over how the bloc feels and eventually no clear response was issued. Whether or not to give Turkey a membership card has been relegated from the to-do list.

David Cameron has let it be known that the UK Government will be batting for the Turks but as Conservative Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first female Muslim Cabinet member, will say in a speech on Thursday 20 January, Britain has to get its national attitude towards Muslims right first before it can think about lecturing others on equality.

And this is part of the wider problem – there has never truly been a coherent, union-wide policy on this issue. Take burqas for example: should members be banning them or not? And as this blog noted last month, (‘Snow boots for Islamic fundamentalists’, 31 December 2010′), Islamic terror plots have been on the rise in Scandinavia and earlier this week a Somali man went on trial for the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. Should members be allowing the publication of such pictures?

Switzerland, surrounded by EU member-states, drew gasps of breath in 2009 when its parliament approved a ban on the building of minarets. There is also rising antipathy in Germany towards Muslims and Turkish inclusion in the EU. The majority of the country’s four million Muslims have Turkish ancestry and president Christian Wulff faced a particularly tough time on a state visit to Turkey last year. The EU talks at length about a common agricultural policy, a common defence policy and a common economic policy and 2011 should be the year when major steps are taken to discussing a common policy to all the issues surrounding the place of Islam in Europe.

The flight of the president

Mass demonstrations were rare in North Africa. But 2011 has begun in extremely turbulent fashion, with the Tunisian president, Zine El Abadine Ben Ali, fleeing his imploding country for the Gulf after weeks of riots left many dead and forced the army to move into the cities. The people, disaffected and finally showing it publicly, are seriously unhappy at the way their governments have been handling their economies and jobs markets.

Algeria has also been the scene of rioting and further west, the Arab winter of discontent has been continuing in Jordan, where thousands have been marching in protest at fuel and food prices. Calls for the president to fall on his sword have been ringing round the streets there too. Sectarian bombings in Egypt further along the Mediterranean coast have heightened tensions in the region.

But back in Algeria, this is how 2010 began, with national protests as Algerians were cross about the overbearing feeling of stasis pervading the country’s political psyche and forcing the pace of social development to slow to a crawl. They finished the year up in arms again but the state of the protests in the country for the moment has calmed, as its neighbour has boiled over.

Although the protests across the Maghreb began as demonstrations against rising fuel and food prices and youth unemployment, they have turned into public manifestations of pent-up hurt and stagnation at the lack of social mobility that has been perpetuated year after year by the long-serving premiers. They have been public rejections of the current politics.

The worst disturbances have been in previously mellow Tunisia. Once they started hitting the streets week after week, the police tried to match the swelling demonstrations. Yet the passion and fervour with which the strikes have been carried out snowballed as each day came and went. The protests intensified, demonstrators died, the police stepped up control measures. This is how the pattern continued until the complete meltdown of the country’s governing structure on 14 January, when the president fled, leaving the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, in charge.

The pressure is now on the AU, the EU, the US and other Arab countries to respond and act. Tunisians will feel they have played their role, in ousting the president. International mediation will be needed to ensure that the fragility of Egyptian sectarianism and Algerian and Jordanian public strife do not exacerbate or Europe will have a serious problem just the other side of the Mediterranean.

A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.