Thursday, May 16, 2013

Morning Reading -- May 16

Three unrelated but satisfying reads so far this morning, none of which is excessively stressful or gruesome. (Plenty of that, too, but that's not a good reading diet.)


The Anatomy of a Half-Hearted Kidnapping
by maryam ishani

This is just a picture of Sana'a, I don't have any pictures of would-be
Contrary to popular perception, they just aren't
walking about.
In a country like Yemen, where kidnappings and attempted kidnappings of international workers at least appear to be on the rise, you might sometimes wonder at times when your day might come.

I had never wondered before, however, if that day might be extraordinarily humdrum.

I had been in my office in Sana’a yesterday, speaking on the phone with a colleague at the UN when I was forced to hang up because of a considerable amount of noise in the lobby of the building.

I told my colleague that I would try to call back later, joking that I might forget as I might be too busy looking for a way to pack up early and get a head start on the weekend in Yemen (Thursday and Friday).

Three well-dressed, small to medium sized men (though they did honestly sound like 8 large ones), were coming around the corner towards my office and speaking loudly and angrily.

A young Yemeni translator who shares my office and spends most of her working day intensely talking to herself (many English phrases are bewilderingly difficult to translate into classical Arabic) stopped her work and leaned back in her chair, listening carefully to the voices, her eyes wide.

“Do you know what they are saying?” she said, looking at me, “They want money.”

I had guessed as much. Events organized around support for elections or the transition process (such as this particular organization regularly organizes) usually involve stipends distributed for the purposes of mitigating transportation costs and time lost from work.

They are a critical part of ensuring equal access for participants, but I have seen them more than once result in scuffles and threats, sometimes even with guns being drawn.

During Yemen’s elections in 2012, Yemeni gunmen picked on the wrong female Egyptian Elections Commission worker and walked away from a dispute over stipends empty-handed and with considerably less of their dignity intact.

According to a friend, a Yemeni colleague of mine was waiting for them outside, arms folded across his chest, shaking his head disgustedly as the gunmen made their way out of the compound.

The demeanor of the men coming down my hall certainly didn’t give me cause for alarm, they were all wearing clean galabayas (long white, tunic-like robes), sport coats over the robes and an embroidered scarf folded into a triangle and draped neatly across their shoulders (as in the Sana’ani business dress style).

They simply appeared like three well groomed men who did not know their way around the building, and so were popping their heads into various offices as they made their way down the hall, perhaps a little angry that none of the rooms were clearly labeled.

“These are very bad people, stay here” my office mate said, bolting up to go out into the hall, making sure to shut the door between me and the angry men approaching.

As their voices grew louder and more irate, it dawned on me that the guards normally stationed at our entrance leading to the street were managing the transportation of staff arriving from a second facility.

I wondered if anyone had been at the gate to ask the men to surrender their weapons. Yemen is a highly armed nation, second only to the United States. It would be entirely normally for the men to be carrying side-arms.

Trapped in the last office in the hall, I examined a window in the bathroom in my office, evaluating if I would fit through it if I needed to.

Concerned for my officemate, though, I peered out into the hall where she and two other female staff were trying to block the men from advancing any further down the hall towards our office.

A young male Yemeni staff member, Mustafa (not his real name), was also attempting to prevent them from advancing toward the executive director’s office, at the other end of the hall. His insistence that they back away from that entrance only made them more adamant and they turned around, quickly overrunning him.

The executive director later told me, that at the time she too had no idea if she should be alarmed. It was only the face of Mustafa, attempting to get past the men in her doorway while very wide-eyed and abnormally sweaty, that gave her reason to be anxious.

A diminuitive and exceedingly polite Canadian, she also told me that she had initially thanked the three men for their visit to her organization (in the Arabic she had carefully learned for polite protocol).

She also explained that she had also been told that it was courteous to walk guests out of her office, which she was attempting to do while they were threatening to drag her away and “burn this whole place down.”

All she could do, she said, was nod politely as though she could understand the three of them at once, while they were blocking the entrance to her office and while the three female staff members behind them were, at this point, crying.

Mustafa continued to try to get between the three men and our director while they pushed him away. Loudly, in the little Arabic I understood, they were trying to confirm that she was the “Mudir,” the boss. She was calmly nodding yes, and they began shouting that if they didn’t get their money, they were going to “take all the foreigners,” do “terrible things,” make “lots of damage” and “burn the building down.”

The executive director told me, that at point, she decided to abandon her efforts to politely escort them from her office and began edging backwards towards the window, realizing only at that moment that her office didn’t have an escape route and that she should speak to security about that later.

I came out into the hall, at this point unsure, if staying in my office out of sight while my director was being kidnapped was cowardly, I was also a little concerned that the men seeing me standing in the hallway in jeggings, holding a mug that said ‘coffee coffee coffee’ on it, might only makes things worse.

When two colleagues (A male Yemeni and a female American) arrived into our lobby from the second facility, I thought to step out and warn them to stay back, maybe redirect them to another hall.

At this point, one of the men tried to grab the executive director’s arm. At this point Mustafa sprang into action and pulled one of the men into a stairwell. The second male Yemeni colleague (who had only just arrived with the American colleague) stepped in as well.

With the three men distracted the remaining staff directed the executive director, the American colleague, and myself (I’m Iranian born but raised in Canada) up a stairwell and onto the second floor to wait until the men had left.

We stayed out of sight, making awkward small talk over the loud voices still coming from the hallway, glancing at weepy colleagues coming and going up and down the stairs quickly.

A female colleague who had been front and the center in the argument went by red-eyed from crying. She had been in charge of disbursements for an event the men had attended. They had signed in on the attendance sheet as being from Sana’a, which meant they received a smaller stipend than participants who had to travel to the event from further away. The men were angry they had received less money and were demanding the difference or “they were going to take the foreigners and burn this place to the ground”.

The staff downstairs agreed upon a narrative that would allow the men to leave with what they wanted without letting them believe that it was because they had made threats.

It went something along the lines of, “Ooooohhh we didn’t know you came from THAT part of Sana’a. Why, yes, that IS further away, you SHOULD get more stipend.

The men (who had already received the equivalent of $8 for their travel for the day) were given an additional $12 each, to make their stipends equal to participants who had travelled from outside the capital. The men did also make off with a semi-expensive laptop.

Considering that this past week three kidnapped foreigners (two Finns and an Austrian) were released after a $50 million ransom paid by the governments of Oman and Qatar, our office was pleased to have secured our freedom from harm for only $36 and an IBM thinkpad. The whole exchange had been remarkably straightforward. No guns were drawn, a few people cried but mostly because the men had offended their professionalism in front of their “mudir.”

It was such an uninspired kidnapping attempt, that when I stopped by the executive director's office to ask if she was ok before I left for the day, she initially thought I was referring to her favored political party's shocking defeat the day before in the British Columbia Provincial elections.

In a country as desperately poor as Yemen, costs incurred while traveling to and from an event can be prohibitive, the average monthly salary for a Yemeni family is about $100.

The politics of who gets how much can be even more complicated. In the case of this incident, the stipend had been 8$ for people attending from within the capital, and $20 for people for traveling from governorates outside the capital.

Ironically, the event had been a conflict negotiation and peace-building exercise.


Art in Egypt: Where to Find Cairo's Donkey Installations
BySusan Hack
May 14 2013

This is a photo-essay. Be sure to go to the link for the pictures.
In your travels you may have seen “Cow Parade,” the international public arts program that originated in Zurich in 1998 in which fiberglass sculptures of cows decorated by local artists are exhibited in public venues such parks, schools, train stations, and government buildings. Tweaking the idea, other cities have used symbols relevant to the local culture (camels in Dubai; teddy bears in Berlin). In Cairo the just launched 2013 Caravan Festival of the Arts has adopted the donkey as its theme.
“In both the Christian and Muslim religions, the donkey is a symbol of peace and compassion,” explains Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler, the festival’s curator and the rector of the interfaith St. John’s Church in Maadi, a Cairo suburb. “Saladin rode into the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey, not on a war horse, to signal his peaceful intentions towards its citizens. Jesus, too, rode a donkey. A beast of burden used by the poorest of the poor, a donkey is also a symbol of compassion.” 
Chandler, an American Episcopal reverend who grew up in Senegal, founded the festival five years ago with “the objective of building bridges of understanding, respect, and friendship between East and West, and between Muslims and Christians.” This year he commissioned Egyptian artist Reda Abd El Rahman to create 90 life-sized and quarter-sized fiberglass donkeys and invited 45 Egyptian and foreign artists to transform them into personal visions. Twenty-five of the pieces will eventually be exhibited in various locations in Europe before being auctioned for charity (benefitting Egyptians of all faiths) in London. Local residents have the chance to buy the smaller pieces, with proceeds benefitting disadvantaged communities.

Muslim and Christian religious leaders from across Cairo attended the opening night, along with a mixed crowd of Egyptians and expats. Festival activities include lectures, films, and literature, but everyone, including me, was eager to see the donkeys. They have made for an edgy visual arts show that is a lot less touchy-feely than the original concept suggested. 
Contemporary Egyptian art is often political. While interpreting the theme of peace and compassion artists did not shy away from addressing Egypt’s unsettled transition from dictatorship to democracy and the uneasy interplay of secularism and religion. 
In Egypt one of the biggest insults you can fling is “Yah, Humar,” or “you donkey!” Egyptian artist Reda Abd El Rahman, who created the fiberglass donkey model, used his creation to attack those he holds responsible for the deaths of protestors during Egypt’s revolution. His “Renaissance Donkey” (pictured right) a none-too-subtle reference to the “Renaissance Project” of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential election campaign, depicts a creature wearing shiny black shoes on its hooves and with the head of a bearded man wearing wire rimmed glasses—he is muslim, indicted by the prayer callous on his forehead. (The callous takes the form of a brass shoe, another form of insult.) "I always feel that there is a connection between the donkey and the Egyptian citizen who is always crushed and poor,” the artist says. The face is not one person but representative “of an unhealthy troika: financial authority and the religious fascism and military mafia. I hold them responsible for all the Egyptians who died during the revolution.” Abd El Rahman's donkey also evokes a post-revolution version of the tale of the Emperor's new clothes, as the creature wears a businessman’s suit jacket, while the rear quarters wear camouflage pants and army boots.


Iceland's elections: A shattered fairy tale
After the financial crash of 2008, Iceland refused to bail out its banks and overthrew its government. But five years on, has its flirtation with an alternative to austerity ended?

8 May 2013
I’m in a van with three pirates, and we’re pillaging snacks from all the major political parties in Iceland. It’s 27 April, election day in Reykjavík, and the months of campaigning are over. The parliamentary candidates of the Pirate Party have nothing to do except drive around the various party headquarters appropriating cake and crisps. They prefer to call it “challenging the antagonism of the current political climate”. By dropping in on rival parties. And taking their food. 
“This is taxpayer-funded, so actually it’s already my food,” says Kristjan, a huge, jolly, bearded technologist who is running as a candidate in Reykjavík. He slips a choc ice into his pocket as we say goodbye to the centrist Progressive Party, with its impressive spread of smoked-tongue pavlova. Next, we’re off to see the Social Democrats, who may or may not have coffee. There are 15 parties running in what may be the oddest national election Europe has seen in decades, so we’re unlikely to go hungry. 
Iceland is a little human crucible bubbling away in the middle of the north Atlantic, and an experiment in how to build and run a modern democracy. For most of the past 30 years, it embraced aggressive free-market capitalism. Then its banks failed, its population lost faith in conventional politics, and it began to be an experiment in something else entirely. Desperate people across the eurozone cling to the fairy tale of Iceland as a plucky country holding out against austerity – but Icelanders see things differently. 
In this election, the main choice seems to be between the centre-right parties that led the country into economic disaster and the leftgreen coalition that failed to lead it out again. Now fringe parties and protest groups are appearing to fill the ideas vacuum. Of these newcomers, the Pirates – a disparate group of hackers, anarchists and digital rights campaigners – are by far the most interesting. Elsewhere in the world, internet activists such as the hacker Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, the late Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz and many others have been prosecuted and imprisoned for fighting for freedom of information, but these ones are about to get into parliament. 
“I’ve been disillusioned with politics for a long time, and I didn’t really feel anything would change,” says Bjarni Einarsson, a Pirate Party candidate who has the thick glasses and wacky hairstyle of trendy geeks from here to Hackney. Einarsson, like almost everyone I meet, no longer believes in party politics. 
So why is he running for parliament? “Because I believe in the issues,” he says, “and I know now that if we have just one or two people in parliament they can sponsor bills and propose changes, make improvements.” 
Reykjavík. Photo: Getty
The first thing you have to understand about Iceland is that it’s tiny. The population is just over 320,000, which is about the same as Reading’s, and two-thirds of them live in the capital, Reykjavík, which is about the size of Southend. Before the banking crisis, American investment, exploitation of natural resources and the expansion of the financial sector had transformed Iceland from one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the richest in the space of 50 years. It’s small enough that the best way to meet and interview a member of parliament is to hang around in a trendy bar in downtown Reykjavík and wait for one to turn up at the next table. It’s small enough that this happened to me twice during a four-day trip. Oh, and about 0.3 per cent of Icelanders are personally running for parliament this year. 
Iceland has always been a land self-authored in myth and legend. Its lava fields and glacial plains are supposedly populated by elves, trolls and huldufólk – hidden folk – in whom 80 per cent of the population believes. At least, that’s what the PR for Icelandair wants you to think, because that’s what’s written on the useless napkins handed out in economy class on the red-eye to Reykjavík. In fact, it turns out that only 30 per cent of the population believes that fairies exist, although that third is prepared to agitate for roads to be diverted around their supposed homes. This is remarkable enough that one wonders why the tourist board bothered to exaggerate. 
The story of Iceland’s curious political situation is another folk tale that was already fascinating before it was blown out of all proportion. What most of the world appears to believe is that, some time between 2008 and 2009, the country refused to bail out its banks when the global economy crashed and that instead it jailed all of its bankers, overthrew the government, wrote a new constitution on the internet and elected a lesbian prime minister who solved all the nation’s problems with a flick of her magic wand. In this global era of enforced austerity, people want to believe this so much that they get angry when friends who live in Iceland disabuse them of the fantasy.

Here’s what actually happened. Although it is true that the three largest banks –Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki – were allowed to go bust in 2008, this was hardly a political choice: Iceland could do nothing else, because their debts were ten times the size of its GDP. It is also true that popular protest brought about a change in power. Demonstrations over the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly its promises to the IMF to repay the financial sector’s enormous debts to countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, started in 2008. On 20 January 2009, the usually reserved Icelandic people turned out on to the streets in their thousands, bashed kitchen utensils and threw fruit and yoghurt at the Althingi, the parliament building. They were demanding a change of government. 
They got one. Referendums were promptly held on whether to repay foreign debts, and the state began to draw up a new constitution in consultations with the public that included garnering responses on Facebook. But then, the new administration tried to side with the IMF over the debts of the online bank Icesave and refused, in effect, to implement the constitution Icelanders had been promised. So much for the socialist utopia. 
Nor are all the bankers in jail: at least one of them is running for parliament. Thrinn Guð - jónsson of the Dawn party, a small left-ofcentre splinter group, did “risk management at Icebank” before the financial crash. Guð - jónsson’s job “was actually to confirm that there was no risk to us, to the bank. In retrospect, I should have thought more about whether or not there was a risk to the nation,” he says. Standing as a political candidate for a tiny party with little hope of election seems, for Guðjónsson, to be a way of voicing his exasperation with his old way of thinking, which he has abandoned along with his old job: “Now I have a bed and breakfast and I grow organic vegetables.” 
I meet him on election day, driving around with the Pirates trying to blag dinner. The Dawn party has given away almost all of its cake, so we head to the next party headquarters. There we meet Thorsteinn Magnusson, a candidate for the centrist Progressive Party, one of those likely to be back in government before the end of the day. The Progressives rely on the farming and fishing population for their support, and are glad now that their base has abandoned its brief dalliance with the centre left, even though that is as much a symptom of fear as anything else. 
Instead of bailing out its leading banks, Iceland devalued the króna and instituted capital controls, and the economy did indeed contract: real wages dropped and unemployment went from 1.6 per cent before the crash to a peak of 9.3 per cent. But it has now come down to roughly 5 per cent and the economy is slowly growing again. 
Where Iceland did break the rules, however, was in choosing to force the banks’ losses on to their creditors, including billions owed to Britain and the Netherlands. The IMF attempted to force Iceland to repay this debt, and the new, nominally left-wing government agreed. But the people of Iceland rejected any such deal. 
The message that most of the country took away from this was that the parliamentary left, just like the parliamentary right, could not be trusted not to kowtow to the banks. The share of the vote for the left-green coalition that took over during the country’s supposed revolution has disintegrated. Half of Iceland now wants the old centre-right parties back in power, which, according to Anna Andersen of the English-language magazine Reykjavík Grapevine, is a purely nostalgic vote – like voting for the year 1997. The rest have their pick of the newer, smaller parties. 
What Iceland is experiencing is a version in miniature of the democratic crisis that has been felt around the world in the years following the 2008 banking collapse. It is a sense that representative democracy is not working. But the Pirate Party is the only one running on the basis that the entire system is buggered. Its solution is a system of digitally facilitated “direct democracy”, which aims to replace representative, parliamentary demo - cracy with something fairer. 
That’s part of the reason I’m following the Pirates around. Another reason is that one of its candidates happens to have offered me a mattress on his floor to sleep on, in a room that smells precisely as you’d expect the bedroom of a 29-year-old hacker who’s running for parliament to smell – a heady mix of pizza boxes, adrenaline and feet. 
Smári McCarthy is a digital rights campaigner and ex-member of WikiLeaks. He cofounded the Icelandic Pirate Party because, he says, “the price of criticism is an alternative”. He is one of a number of technological and political innovators who have been active in Iceland for years – this is one of the most digitally connected countries in the world and it was a hub for WikiLeaks in its heyday. There’s an app or a hack for everything here, including a handy iPhone download to stop you from accidentally sleeping with your close cousin (Iceland is such a small place that almost no two people are unrelated within eight generations). McCarthy’s precise words, on hearing that the polls suggest he may be an MP by the following day, are: “Oh, shit. Well, I suppose this was always a possibility.” 
McCarthy does politics like a programmer: he amasses piles of relevant information and bombards his opponents with it in a manner that is technically impressive and a little annoying, especially when he’s on television. The Pirates don’t go in for spin. 
The Pirate Party was built in Sweden in 2006 by hackers and freespeech activists hoping to fight the flood of online censorship bills being enacted in the name of preventing “piracy”. It is now a global movement, with branches in 60 countries and 250 elected representatives, including two members of the European Parliament. Its demographic is young, educated and precariously employed, mostly in programming, with a taste for lots of black clothing. The gender balance at meetings is skewed towards men, although the women the party does have are over-represented in critical roles. Rather than electing official leaders, the Pirates believe in what one campaigner, Alla Ámundadóttir, calls “rough consensus and running code”. It’s all a little bit Occupy Wall Street. If they manage to get elected in Iceland, they’ll have the movement’s first MPs in a national government. 
“I’m a Pirate in my heart,” says Jón Thór Ólafsson, 36, one of the movement’s leading candidates. “The Pirates are for freedom and direct democracy. That means that people have the right to participate in decisions that affect them. It changes the rules of the game, and those who have been benefiting from playing the game aren’t very happy about changing the rules.” For someone running against the political mainstream, Ólafsson is a born politician, with a charisma and gift for rhetoric that some of the other Pirates lack – they would far rather build a website than kiss a baby, and that might be to their credit. 
“The demand today is for more influence of the people to make decisions that affect them. You see that all around you.” I ask Ólafsson what he means. “Look at the Arab spring. We had revolutions where the demand was for more decision-making in the hands of the people. And in the United States, with the Occupy movement.” 
Nearly everybody you meet in Iceland looks like they’re part of the cast of a teenage vampire film, with unearthly good looks and ghostly skin, but Ólafsson in particular could have been grown in a lab set up to produce telegenic politicians and horror-movie heart-throbs. Speaking to him gives you the distinct sensation he’s about to go for your neck. I have no doubt he will be elected. 
Democracy, for the Pirates, is something you can build and make better on your computer – something you can hack. “Yesterday we launched a new tool,” Ólafsson says. “We hack the web page of parliament and present their data in an accessible form, so you can see who isn’t showing up for work, who’s skipping class, how they’re voting.” Not everyone is a fan of this strategy. “It sometimes feels like they want to run the whole country like a Ted talk,” says Robert Cluness, a journalist at the Grapevine. 
The Pirates have no campaign headquarters, just a favourite downtown café with a cool factor, happy hour, enough ratty sofas to fit ten people with computers and madly expensive bottled beer (alcohol tax was excruciatingly high in Iceland even before the crash). It’s a crowd united by the sense of doing something clever that pisses off the government. Unfortunately, that doesn’t automatically translate into votes. “We have to appeal to farmers about why they should care about the internet, and that’s a tough sell,” says Jason, a strategist for the party. 
Ámundadóttir reminds me that what distinguishes the Pirates from other parties is that “we aren’t trying to impress everyone. I’m not afraid to make people angry if I have the right cause. I cannot say something against my heart just to impress the majority.” The Pirates, in other words, are punks – but in a tiny country like Iceland, punks can punch above their weight. In Reykjavík City Hall on election day, hundreds of sleek wooden ballot boxes stand ready to be delivered. Their tops are flipped open so they look like an army of hungry mouths. It’s a numbers game: under Iceland’s proportional system, every party needs 5 per cent of the popular vote to win any seats at all. 
The Pirates have been expecting just over that number, which would give them three or four seats out of 63 in the Althingi. They gather at restaurant in town to watch their best-known spokesperson, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, on television, and make use of the free bar to diffuse the tension. 
By 3am, the Pirate Party has 4.8 per cent of the popular vote, then 4.85 per cent, then 4.9 per cent. By 4am the tension is unbearable, and drunk rappers and local eccentrics who turn out to be the booked entertainment are running around with tambourines and drums. Smári McCarthy jumps on a chair to direct the Pirates towards a club called Harlem before everyone flips out. Here, it becomes apparent that these people are still 90 per cent Viking; I’ve not been on a more joyfully bloodthirsty dance floor since I was a teenage raver. I end up in the corner watching political candidates fling themselves about to techno. At 9am, the fix is in, and so are the Pirates. Just. The final count is 5.1 per cent. 
Three Pirate MPs have been elected to the Althingi. They include Jón Thór Ólafsson and Birgitta Jónsdóttir – the leader the Pirates would have if they went in for that sort of thing. Nobody is in much of a mood for celebration, and that’s not only because everyone has a screaming headache. 
Along with the Pirates, large numbers of MPs from the Independence and Progressive parties, the right-wing old guard, were returned to parliament. They will play the leading roles in whatever coalition cabinet is eventually selected, under the stewardship of the Progressive leader, Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson, whose share of the vote almost doubled.
The fairy tale of Iceland as the plucky little anti-austerity utopia is over. 
A new generation of politicians is going to have to work out what comes next – not just in Iceland, but all over the world. For the Pirates, that means keeping the grass roots strong, and pushing for more “direct democracy” and for the government to accept the new constitution, which includes safeguards for internet rights. 
“We’ll do what we can, and try to have an influence,” says McCarthy, insisting that the Pirates will carry on as before, “working on issues of transparency, access to information, and freedom of speech. That’s not going to change – the only thing that’s changing is the venue, and who pays the bill.”

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