New political earthquake in Brazil: Is it now time for media outlets to call this a ‘coup’?

The Intercept reports: Brazil today awoke to stunning news of secret, genuinely shocking conversations involving a key minister in Brazil’s newly installed government, which shine a bright light on the actual motives and participants driving the impeachment of the country’s democratically elected president, Dilma Rousseff. The transcripts were published by the country’s largest newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, and reveal secret conversations that took place in March, just weeks before the impeachment vote in the lower house took place. They show explicit plotting between the new planning minister (then-senator), Romero Jucá, and former oil executive Sergio Machado — both of whom are formal targets of the “Car Wash” corruption investigation — as they agree that removing Dilma is the only means for ending the corruption investigation. The conversations also include discussions of the important role played in Dilma’s removal by the most powerful national institutions, including — most importantly — Brazil’s military leaders.

The transcripts are filled with profoundly incriminating statements about the real goals of impeachment and who was behind it. The crux of this plot is what Jucá calls “a national pact” — involving all of Brazil’s most powerful institutions — to leave Michel Temer in place as president (notwithstanding his multiple corruption scandals) and to kill the corruption investigation once Dilma is removed. In the words of Folha, Jucá made clear that impeachment will “end the pressure from the media and other sectors to continue the Car Wash investigation.” It is unclear who is responsible for recording and leaking the 75-minute conversation, but Folha reports that the files are currently in the hand of the prosecutor general. The next few hours and days will likely see new revelations that will shed additional light on the implications and meaning of these transcripts.

The transcripts contain two extraordinary revelations that should lead all media outlets to seriously consider whether they should call what took place in Brazil a “coup”: a term Dilma and her supporters have used for months. When discussing the plot to remove Dilma as a means of ending the Car Wash investigation, Jucá said the Brazilian military is supporting the plot: “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” He also said the military is “monitoring the Landless Workers Movement” (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST), the social movement of rural workers that supports PT’s efforts of land reform and inequality reduction and has led the protests against impeachment. [Continue reading…]

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This is how fascism comes to America

Robert Kagan writes: We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

That this tough-guy, get-mad-and-get-even approach has gained him an increasingly large and enthusiastic following has probably surprised Trump as much as it has everyone else. Trump himself is simply and quite literally an egomaniac. But the phenomenon he has created and now leads has become something larger than him, and something far more dangerous.

Republican politicians marvel at how he has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public. But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people. [Continue reading…]

Unfortunately, some people, lacking the confidence to think for themselves, are instead inclined to mirror the opinions of their ideological mentors, in which case it often seems to matter more who is speaking than what they are saying.

In this case, for those for whom the label neocon provokes disgust, the warnings from a leading neoconservative (Robert Kagan) might easily be dismissed — even though they are well-grounded. My advice: Ignore the byline and simply consider what he is saying. And remember that tyrants aren’t born — they emerge in a suitable set of conditions and those conditions themselves give birth to tyranny.

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Tunisia’s Ennahda party leader: ‘We are Muslim democrats, not Islamists’

Middle East Eye reports: Tunisia’s Ennahda party will separate its religious activities from political ones, its chief said in statements published on Thursday ahead of a weekend congress to formalise the change.

Rached Ghannouchi told French daily Le Monde there was no room left in post-Arab Spring Tunisia for “political Islam”.

“Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution has imposed limits on extreme secularism and extreme religion,” he was quoted as saying.

“We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity.

“This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics,” said Ghannouchi. [Continue reading…]

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An aristocrat’s view of Beirut

Michael Specter writes: The Sursocks are among the oldest and richest of the Christian families in Lebanon. And at the age of 94, Lady Cochrane, a Sursock by birth, may be the last great dame of the Levant. Lucid and acerbic, she seems like a cross between the Dowager Countess of Grantham and one of the less savory Mitford sisters. We had tea late one afternoon in her library, which, because it is the “coziest” place in the house, also serves as her sitting room. (This particular cozy room has 33-foot ceilings and mahogany walls and enormous 17th-century paintings. A collection of Flemish tapestries lines the entrance vestibule and dining room.)

Lady Cochrane, dressed crisply in a brown blouse, silk salmon foulard and houndstooth skirt, met me in the middle of the great hall, which features a double flight of marble stairs at its center. I asked the most obvious question first: Were you here during the civil war?

“Always,” she replied, as if my question was slightly insulting. “It’s where I live.”

Even today it is hard to walk three blocks in Beirut without seeing a building pockmarked with machine gun fire or mortar rounds, and yet the Sursock Palace was pristine. I wondered how that was possible.

“ I believe we were somehow respected,” she said matter-of-factly. “Because one day I was in the middle of the hall where you came in.” A crowd of what she referred to as “young ruffians” walked into the house. “I knew that these people would go from house to house, burgle and ruin them,” she said. (I wondered whether the words “ruffian,” and “burgle” had ever before been used to describe the vengeful packs of murderers that held sway in Beirut during the war.)

“I was alone,” she said, “and I thought, this is terrible. There must have been 50 of them. With big guns. I thought, they are just going to murder me. They saw me at a distance, and then they all went upstairs,” she said. “I tried to stay calm as best I could. After a time, they came down and I thought they must have just destroyed everything or stolen things.” She said this all with a kind of effortless serenity.

“But they did not pinch one single thing,” she continued, shaking her head in amazement 30 years later. “Except for an old poniard that had been hanging on the wall. There were two of them with exquisite Chinese handles. Very rare. They stole one and left the other where it was. I have always felt quite certain they didn’t care about the handle. Probably threw it away. They only wanted the dagger itself.”

Lady Cochrane explained that her staff had buried most of the valuables at the start of the hostilities. And there were a lot of them to bury. (“After it was over my own butler had trouble finding everything,” she said. “He hid it all so well.”)

She is horrified by the city she now inhabits. “When I was a child, Beirut was the most beautiful city. Full of gardens. Then bad government got a hold of the place. Now, after years of war and neglect it is nothing but a generalized slum.”

It was perhaps not the most nuanced analysis, but I had to ask one more question: What had happened?

“Democracy, young man,” she said. “Democracy. We never had a proper leader, and eventually the place began to fall apart.” [Continue reading…]

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Four ideas about the crisis of the Arab world that need to be repudiated

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An editorial in The Economist says: Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies — Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism — have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.

First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers — from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region — which Barack Obama seems to embrace — can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.

Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland — not to mention Israel. As our special report (see article) sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.

A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.

The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism: partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure. [Continue reading…]

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Riots, slowdown and corruption eat away at southern Africa’s promise

By Stephen Chan, SOAS, University of London

These are dark days for southern Africa. The last month has seen xenophobic riots and killings in Zambia, once an almost immaculately peaceful country, and the reinstatement of several hundred corruption charges which could be delivered against South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.

Times have changed in Zambia since its first president, Kenneth Kaunda, galvanised the country’s 72 ethnic groups (not counting European and Indian populations) into a united nation. During his decades in power, he defied the white minority regimes to his south, Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa. He hosted the exile headquarters of the ANC and sheltered the Namibian exile group SWAPO, whose country South Africa occupied in defiance of the UN.

Landlocked Zambia took a terrible hammering as the white regimes controlled its transport links to the sea. From time to time there were military incursions into Lusaka, the capital city – yet the Zambians took it all with a stoicism born of genuine solidarity.

But times have changed. Kaunda’s successors have not developed their own moral stature, and the country has been badly mismanaged.

[Read more…]

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Donald Trump and the authoritarian temptation

Shadi Hamid writes: When I was living in the Middle East, politics always felt existential, in a way that I suppose I could never fully understand. After all, I could always leave (as my relatives in Egypt were fond of reminding me). But it was easy enough to sense it. Here, in the era of Arab revolt, elections really had consequences. Politics wasn’t about policy; it was about a battle over the very meaning and purpose of the nation-state. These were the things that mattered more than anything else, in part because they were impossible to measure or quantify.

The primary divide in most Arab countries was between Islamists and non-Islamists. The latter, especially those of a more secular bent, feared that Islamist rule, however “democratic” it might be, would alter the nature of their countries beyond recognition. It wouldn’t just affect their governments or their laws, but how they lived, what they wore, and how they raised their sons and daughters.

Perhaps more than at any other time, millions of Americans are getting a sense, however mild in comparison, of what it might feel like to lose your country — or at least think about losing your country — because of what people decide to do in the privacy of the voting booth. It still remains (somewhat) unlikely that Donald Trump, the now presumptive Republican nominee, can win a general election. Regardless of the final outcome, however, the billionaire’s rise offers up a powerful — and frightening — reminder that liberal democracy, even where it’s most entrenched, is a fragile thing.

* * *

When I hear my friends debating how, exactly, so many of their fellow citizens could support someone like Trump, it reminds me a bit of Egypt. In my forthcoming book, I relay a telling conversation I had four years ago, which has stayed with me since. A few days after the country’s first post-revolutionary elections concluded in January 2012, I visited my great aunt in her extravagant flat in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. She was in a state of shock, but worse than that was the confusion. It was one thing for the Muslim Brotherhood, long Egypt’s largest opposition group, to win close to 40 percent of the vote, but how could 28 percent of Egyptians vote for ultraconservative Salafi parties, which believed in the strict implementation of Islamic law?

Like most Egyptians, she personally knew Brotherhood members even if she didn’t quite like them, but she hadn’t had much experience with Salafis and seemed totally unaware that they had extended their reach deep into Egyptian society. She realized, perhaps for the first time, that the country she had thought was hers for the better part of 70 years would never quite be the same. It hadn’t really even been hers to begin with.

What my aunt feared was that Egypt would become an “illiberal democracy,” a term popularized by Fareed Zakaria in his 2003 book The Future of Freedom, but one that’s still difficult for Americans to fundamentally relate to. In the American experience, democracy and liberalism seemed to go hand in hand, to such an extent that democracy really just became shorthand for “liberal democracy.”

As Richard Youngs writes in his excellent study of non-Western democracy, liberalism and democracy have historically been “rival notions and not bedfellows.” Liberalism is about non-negotiable personal rights and freedoms. Democracy, while requiring some basic protection of rights to allow for meaningful competition, is more about popular sovereignty, popular will, and accountability and responsiveness to the voting public. Which, of course, raises the question: What if voters don’t want to be liberal and vote accordingly? [Continue reading…]

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Sadiq Khan’s victory: A triumph for a tolerant, open and diverse world city

In an editorial, The Independent says: It is customary to deride gesture politics, but there are some symbolic gestures that are well worthwhile. Not that the election of Sadiq Khan by the emphatic margin of 57 to 43 per cent is purely symbolic. The powers of the London Mayor may be limited, but his is still the most powerful directly elected office in the country. Yet it is for the symbolism of electing the Muslim son of an immigrant bus driver that Mr Khan’s victory is most striking.

It is significant because Londoners so resoundingly rejected a campaign that seemed designed to appeal to anti-Muslim prejudice. Democracy does not always eschew the baser motives, but this time Zac Goldsmith tried to make a coded connection between “Muslim” and “terrorist” and the voters of London told him to get lost.

Not only that, but they did so on a turnout sharply higher than four years ago – a welcome rebuttal of pre-election gloom about voter apathy and a promising indicator for the EU referendum vote next month.

Now that the election is over, Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has come out to say that he thinks London is “safe” under Mr Khan as Mayor, and that we should not take too seriously things that might have been said in the “rough and tumble” of the campaign. This confirms that Mr Goldsmith’s campaign was not only disreputable but that most decent Conservatives knew it. [Continue reading…]

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How ‘America First’ got its nationalistic edge

Eric Rauchway writes: When Donald Trump declared,⁠ “‘America First’ will be the overriding theme of my administration,” he invoked the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. aid to the opponents of Nazi Germany before December 1941. This legacy sparked critiques⁠ and defenses⁠ alike of Trump’s appeal to nationalism. Nervous⁠ U.S. allies even worried the phrase heralded a new isolationism. One of Trump’s advisers, however, insisted the phrase was a coincidental echo that didn’t “go back to negative aspects at all.” Apparently, it was merely quaint⁠ in today’s relatively Nazi-free era. But the slogan actually predates the anti-interventionist committee, and it has a lot more to do with the proto-fascist politics of the publishing magnate and sometime politician William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst did not invent the slogan “America First”; he borrowed it from Woodrow Wilson — so he could hurl it back at the president. After World War I broke out, Wilson used the “motto” of “America First” to define his version of neutrality: The United States should bide its time and husband its resources until the warring powers had “carried the thing so far” that they “must be disposed of” — then America would wade in and sort Europe out. In keeping with this view, after the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare against transatlantic shipping, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917.

Before the United States entered World War I, Hearst’s sympathies lay with Germany. He used his publishing empire to gather pro-German editors and writers around him, did a deal with a German agent for newsreel footage, and used a paid agent of the German government as his newspaper correspondent for German matters. But once the United States declared war on Germany, Hearst could no longer maintain this stance, so he took up a new one. With American flags decorating his newspapers’ masthead, he declared that the freshly belligerent Americans should tender no aid to the Allies also fighting Germany: “[K]eep every dollar and every man and every weapon and all our supplies and stores AT HOME, for the defense of our own land, our own people, our own freedom, until that defense has been made ABSOLUTELY secure. After that we can think of other nations’ troubles. But till then, America first!” [Continue reading…]

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Whatever happened to the ‘Turkish model’?

Mustafa Akyol writes: About five years ago, everyone was talking about the “Turkish model.” People in the West and in the Muslim world held up Turkey as a shining example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and is now president, was praised as a reformist who was making his country freer, wealthier and more peaceful.

These days, I think back on those times with nostalgia and regret. The rhetoric of liberal opening has given way to authoritarianism, the peace process with the Kurdish nationalists has fallen apart, press freedoms are diminishing and terrorist attacks are on the rise.

What went wrong? Erdoganists — yes, some of them call themselves that — have a simple answer: a conspiracy. When Mr. Erdogan made Turkey too powerful and independent, nefarious cabals in the West and their treacherous “agents” at home started a campaign to tarnish Turkey’s democracy. Little do they realize, of course, that this conspiracy-obsessed propaganda, the self-righteousness it reflects and the hatred it fuels are part of the problem.

To understand why the Turkish model has let us all down, we have to go back to the 2001 founding of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P. At that time, Turkey was under the thumb of secularist generals who would overthrow any government they couldn’t control. In 1997 they ousted the A.K.P.’s Islamist predecessor, so the founders of the new party put forward a post-Islamist vision. They had abandoned their old ideology, they declared. Their only priorities now were bringing Turkey into the European Union and moving the country toward liberal democracy. [Continue reading…]

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Authoritarian populism on the rise across Europe

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Carlo Bastasin writes: Migration, inequality, middle class decline, the euro crisis, mistrust of the establishment — there is no shortage of explanations for the angry message voters in European countries are delivering with their ballots. However, most of the time, we dismiss the message as a temporary burst of irascibility that will eventually self-modulate. For at least 20 years, we have deemed public irritation as a negligible price for democracy.

In reality, support for radical parties has only grown. Traditional parties favoring European integration — Christian democrat and social democrat — are threatened all across the Continent. New radical parties, particularly on the far right, are popping up everywhere. They represent a powerful and minatory force with time on its side. Every four years, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) loses one million voters for purely demographic reasons. The same applies to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Victims of the area’s high youth unemployment, young voters in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and elsewhere often vote differently and unpredictably.

Those who claim that a new era is about to dawn have never understood the era in which they live. It is past time to consider these developments for what they are — a permanent change in the European political landscape. Last Sunday, Austrian presidential elections once again demonstrated that the traditional parties, elbowed aside by a xenophobic nationalist formation such as the Austrian Free Party, attract a negligible share of voters.

There are reasons to believe that this is not an occasional protest, but a step toward a new form of authoritarian populism. This trend is taking hold of Europe in much the same manner as what happened in the first half of the previous century. This may sound alarmist if not for the fact that European societies are on a slippery slope that provides momentum for authoritarian politics — a slope formed by the combined effects of the economic and migrant crises, which makes the prospect of closing national borders compelling for voters. We have already assented to barbed wire fences going up in Eastern Europe to keep refugees out. Now, Austria is erecting “walls” on the Slovenian and Italian borders. [Continue reading…]

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A surprising number of Americans dislike how messy democracy is. They like Trump

John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse write: Donald Trump’s candidacy – or more to the point, his substantial and sustained public support — has surprised almost every observer of American politics. Social scientists and pundits note that Trump appeals to populists, nativists, ethnocentrists, anti-intellectuals and authoritarians, not to mention angry and disaffected white males with little education.

But few have noticed another side of Trump’s supporters. A surprising number of Americans feel dismissive about such core features of democratic government as deliberation, compromise and decision-making by elected, accountable officials. They believe that governing is (or should be) simple, and best undertaken by a few smart, capable people who are not overtly self-interested and can solve challenging issues without boring discussions and unsatisfying compromises.

Because that’s just what Trump promises, his candidacy is attracting those who think someone should just walk in and get it done. His message is that our country’s problems are straightforward. All we need is to get “great people, really great people” to solve them. No muss, no fuss, no need to hear or take seriously opposing viewpoints. Trump’s straight-talking, unfiltered, shoot-from-the-hip style promises a leader who will take action – instead of working toward a consensus among competing interests. That sounds perfect to the millions of Americans who are just as impatient with standard democratic procedures. [Continue reading…]

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How democracy can turn into tyranny

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Andrew Sullivan writes: As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher … is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment. [Continue reading…]

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David Vincenzetti: How the Italian mogul built a hacking empire

David Kushner reports: The Blackwater of surveillance, the Hacking Team is among the world’s few dozen private contractors feeding a clandestine, multibillion-dollar industry that arms the world’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies with spyware. Comprised of around 40 engineers and salespeople who peddle its goods to more than 40 nations, the Hacking Team epitomizes what Reporters Without Borders, the international anti-censorship group, dubs the “era of digital mercenaries.”

The Italian company’s tools — “the hacking suite for governmental interception,” its website claims — are marketed for fighting criminals and terrorists. But there, on Marquis-Boire’s computer screen, was chilling proof that the Hacking Team’s software was also being used against dissidents. It was just the latest example of what Marquis-Boire saw as a worrying trend: corrupt regimes using surveillance companies’ wares for anti-democratic purposes.

When Citizen Lab published its findings in the October 2012 report “Backdoors are Forever: Hacking Team and the Targeting of Dissent?” the group also documented traces of the company’s spyware in a document sent to Ahmed Mansoor, a pro-democracy activist in the United Arab Emirates. Privacy advocates and human rights organizations were alarmed. “By fueling and legitimizing this global trade, we are creating a Pandora’s box,” Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told Bloomberg.

The Hacking Team, however, showed no signs of standing down. “Frankly, the evidence that the Citizen Lab report presents in this case doesn’t suggest anything inappropriately done by us,” company spokesman Eric Rabe told the Globe and Mail.

As media and activists speculated about which countries the Italian firm served, the founder and CEO of the Hacking Team, David Vincenzetti — from his sleek, white office inside an unsuspecting residential building in Milan — took the bad press in stride. He joked with his colleagues in a private email that he was responsible for the “evilest technology” in the world.

A tall, lean 48-year-old Italian with a taste for expensive steak and designer suits, Vincenzetti has transformed himself over the past decade from an under-ground hacker working out of a windowless basement into a mogul worth millions. He is nothing if not militant about what he defines as justice: Julian Assange, the embattled founder of WikiLeaks, is “a criminal who by all means should be arrested, expatriated to the United States, and judged there”; whistleblower Chelsea Manning is “another lunatic”; Edward Snowden “should go to jail, absolutely.”

“Privacy is very important,” Vincenzetti says on a recent February morning in Milan, pausing to sip his espresso. “But national security is much more important.”

Vincenzetti’s position has come at a high cost. Disturbing incidents have been left in his wake: a spy’s suicide, dissidents’ arrests, and countless human rights abuses. “If I had known how crazy and dangerous he is,” Guido Landi, a former employee, says, “I would never have joined the Hacking Team.” [Continue reading…]

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Hillsborough: Anatomy of a disaster brought on by a failure in public service

The 1989 tragedy in which 96 Liverpool fans died while attending a football match in the North of England might to some distant observers sound like a local story of concern primarily to the bereaved and their fellow citizens, but what happened in Sheffield that day speaks to the wider issue of state powers and responsibilities as they are exercised in every democracy.

During an era in which politicians never tire of speaking solemnly about their duty for protecting national security against the threat of terrorism, the task of providing public safety now (as in the past) has much less to do with thwarting foreign and domestic threats, than it does with an ongoing commitment to public service. In turn, serving ordinary people hinges on viewing and treating them with respect.

The victims at Hillsborough were betrayed by authorities (and the media) which placed the protection of their own interests above those they were meant to serve.

The events leading up to the disaster are described in this video:

The Guardian reports: It was a year into these inquests, and 26 years since David Duckenfield, as a South Yorkshire police chief superintendent, took command of the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, that he finally, devastatingly, admitted his serious failures directly caused the deaths of 96 people there.

Duckenfield had arrived at the converted courtroom in Warrington with traces of his former authority, but over seven airless, agonisingly tense days in the witness box last March, he was steadily worn down, surrendering slowly into a crumpled heap. From his concession that he had inadequate experience to oversee the safety of 54,000 people, to finally accepting responsibility for the deaths, Duckenfield’s admissions were shockingly complete.

He also admitted at the inquests that even as the event was descending into horror and death, he had infamously lied, telling Graham Kelly, then secretary of the Football Association, that Liverpool fans were to blame, for gaining unauthorised entry through a large exit gate. Duckenfield had in fact himself ordered the gate to be opened, to relieve a crush in the bottleneck approach to the Leppings Lane turnstiles.

The chief constable, Peter Wright, had to state that evening that police had authorised the opening of the gate, but as these inquests, at two years the longest jury case in British history, heard in voluminous detail, Duckenfield’s lie endured. It set the template for the South Yorkshire police stance: to deny any mistakes, and instead to virulently project blame on to the people who had paid to attend a football match and been plunged into hell. [Continue reading…]

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