Book Blogger Challenge!

I think this is supposed to be done over 15 days but I don’t want to spam my blog full of rather dull posts individually, so I’m gonna collect these together!

Make 15 book related confessions.
Oh, this is actually rather hard.  Um.

  1. I kind of enjoyed Twilight.  Morally abhorrent and dull at times yet felt kind of fresh.  Don’t get me wrong – I still hated the rest of the ‘saga’.
  2. I must have read the Harry Potter books around 8 times.  They’re the reason it took me so long to expand my reading tastes!
  3. I’m not actually that great a fan of Shakespeare.  His language is unparalleled, but some stories – like Othello or Romeo and Juliet – I just find absolutely ridiculous.
  4. Though both are preferable, if forced to choose I would favour plot and characters over a skilled writing style.  Hence why I love The Hunger Games so much.
  5. Adding to this, I really hate a kind of ‘literary elitism’ you can get.  “Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed the book… But I wouldn’t say it’s a great piece of literature.”  Isn’t enjoying a book all it needs to be good literature?  Well, that and being thought-provoking, I guess.
  6. I own a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.  It was a dubious birthday present!  And has since been on permanent loan to whoever will take it…
  7. When I was 11 I once cursed at a book and got angry at school for making me read it.  I still blush at the memory.
  8. Since 2011 I have been trying to read more books each year than I managed in the preceding year.  My 2013 target is currently 4o books, and I’m on track – having tallied 21 thus far!
  9. I find much Victorian literature extremely difficult to get through.  There’s just something in the writing style that dulls my imagination.  Though I’ve yet to try Dickens.
  10. I talk about books way too much.  I generally mention one or another in every conversation I have!  It must get so irritating.
  11. The longest story I’ve ever written is 36,000 words, when I was 14 – almost a novel!  Of course I read it now and regret everything.  Now I struggle to even reach 1,000 words – though I’ve recently begun a writing régime that will hopefully rectify that.
  12. I sometimes wonder whether I like the idea of reading books more than the actual reading.  This is usually shattered when I find a truly engrossing book, but that doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
  13. My limitations bother me.  Reading 40 books a year may seem like a lot but it’s barely a fraction of those published in one month, let alone all of human history.  It saddens me that I’ll never get close to reading everything out species has produced.
  14. 9 times out of 10 I would rather read a good book than go to a party or attend most social gatherings.  Of course, a social gathering where you read or discuss books is best of all!
  15. [REMOVED AS A VIOLATION OF RULE 1]

What’s your bedtime reading ritual?
I usually try to read a bit as I lay down in bed, but sometimes I’m too tired and skip the reading bit.  I used to use this as my sole time for reading but I’ve since tried to find time throughout the day, as some texts are just too difficult to read when that tired.

Who are your blogging BFFs?
I’m afraid I’m too reclusive to have made any blogging friends yet!  Though there are a number of blogs I regularly look at and enjoy reading.

What’s the last book you flung across the room?
The last book I *wanted* to fling across the room was Fight Club, but unfortunately it was a borrowed copy.

Recommend a tear jerker
I’ve never cried a book, however I once witnessed a friend cry at the ending of The Road so I guess that’s a proven facilitator of tears!

Describe how you shop for books.
I’m a bit of a scrooge so I tend to mainly go for second-hand bookshops or borrow form libraries.  When I’m older and [hopefully] wealthier I intend to buy lots of books to keep the industry going!

Talk about your blogging quirks.
Do I have any blogging quirks?  My blogs are pretty simply, actually – I really just write down my thoughts and ideas on various topics and leave it at that.  I suppose you could say I sometimes have a thing for unnecessary figures and details, especially when it comes to elections.  And there are select topics I like to rant about given even the vaguest opportunity *cough* First Past the Post *cough*.

Write 15 bullet points of things that appeal to you on blogs.
You’re obsessed with the number 15!

  1. Simply discussing things which interest me: generally books, politics, astronomy or traveling.
  2. A clear, coherent writing style.
  3. Also a semi-sensible writing style.  Humour can really aid a blog but one which drives in too many jokes or forces an ‘attitude’ leave me cold.
  4. Updating regularly – don’t create the appearance of being dead.
  5. Not too regular updating, though – blogs which post more than perhaps twice a day get tiring quickly.
  6. Trying to encourage debate.  Either through polls or questions, ones which make the viewer feel welcome to comment.
  7. A nice design – not too cluttered.
  8. A detailed ‘about me’ page.  Perhaps this is my nosy nature coming out but I like to know a bit about the person behind the blog.  Though it doesn’t matter all that much – I also respect the right to privacy.
  9. Writing from a fascinating country like Iran or Egypt.
  10. Conversely, writing from my own country – either Scotland or the UK.
  11. I naturally tend to veer towards bloggers of my own age – I feel intimidated and inadequate around older, more experienced people – though if the quality is good enough I certainly won’t ignore blogs not written by my peers.
  12. Charitable or humanitarian support – from groups like Amnesty International or projects such as Kiva.org, I enjoy seeing humanity working as one for the benefit of us all.
  13. This sounds terrible, but blogs which have the same opinions as I do.  Like everyone, I like to read things which confirm my pre-existing biases.  That said, it’s fascinating when a particular blogger who I know has similar views to me posts something I completely disagree with, because then I can’t just dismiss the idea as being propaganda for an alternative ideology and am forced to reconsider my views.
  14. Blogs which don’t try to find more things to say than they can think of.  Like this current question is making me do.
  15. Blogs which end segments well.  Also unlike this.

Why do you blog about books?
Because I love books!  And I love talking/writing about books!  And as an attempt to reduce my raving towards Real People, I guess.

How do you choose what book to read next?
I actually have a quite complex system for this.  It goes: “home fiction, library fiction, home non-fiction, very old book; library fiction, home fiction, library non-fiction.”  This way, over a cycle of 7 books I’ll read a mixture of books from both my home shelf and the library but also a rough 2:1 ratio of fiction:non-fiction.  The actual book itself: I try to choose a different genre than the one I read before and I informally alternate between authors I know and those I do not.

Show off!  5 of your best blog posts.
Hm…

  1. Democracies in the World by far is the most popular post I’ve made (it’s been a bit butchered by my recent attempts to remove copyrighted images; I’ll need to fix that).
  2. I’m really pleased with my literary analysis in Cloud Atlas [Novel] Analysis.
  3. Death on Mars is also quite ‘popular’ and one of my better cosmology posts.
  4. Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War is one of my better posts on international relations, back before I became too exasperated with the situation in Syria to keep updated with it.
  5. Problems with First Past the Post – see above…

How do you fight blogger fatigue?
What is blogger fatigue?  My own?  I generally enjoy writing and blogging – and it’s a less scary distraction from writing fiction – so don’t experience it all that much.  Unless you mean the fatigue of my readers?  In which case, I fail miserably.

Describe one under-appreciated book EVERYONE should read.
There’s many books that fit this category but my decision is easily J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.  I awarded it the position of being my 5th favourite book of 2012 and it really is more special than most critics would have you believe.

Tell us your deal breakers.
Uh… I don’t understand this question!  If someone says they don’t read then I tend to break all deals I’d previously made with them… ?

Who are your book blogging mentors.
I wouldn’t say I have mentors, but there’s a few book bloggers I enjoy following – The Bookshelf of Emily J, to name one.

Well, that was 40 minutes I’ll never get back!

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Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

Mohammed Morsi: One Year On

A year ago today, on the 30th June 2012, Mohammed Morsi* took office as the fifth President of Egypt.  This marked the rise of the once-banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt after former president Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  Morsi himself served time in prison during Mubarak’s administration.  He is significant for being the first president in Egypt’s history – all 7,000 years of it – to have been elected in what was generally recognised as a free and fair election.  That’s great, right?!  Finally, a leader who respects democracy?  Well……

Morsi never fails to pay lip service to his democratic ideals – more often than not to safeguard his legitimacy – but is he really interested in promoting the ideals of the revolution?  I had a positive opinion of him upon his first election.  Small things, such as not wearing a bulletproof vest during his inauguration speech and refusing to have presidential portraits of himself hung like Mubarak had convinced me he was, at least, different to what had come before.  By no means indications of the route his leadership would take but a good start.

Unfortunately, as the months dragged on it began to look as though his rule was becoming ever more authoritarian.  I uneasily read reports of journalists and presenters who had been arrested or threatened by the government and, although Egypt is nowhere near the level of a police state it was under Mubarak, these are not things which happen in a democratic country.  Then came that November decree where Morsi announced ‘temporary’ powers over the judiciary, effectively granting him more powers than even Mubarak had wielded.  In response to the mass unrest which occurred afterwards he did rescind the decree, and has gone on record since of saying the move was a ‘mistake’.  So, pretty mixed.  Economically, Egypt has continued to stagnate, and while the unrest caused by Morsi’s divisive policies are one factor of this I don’t think he can be solely blamed.  Egypt’s economic problems will take longer than a year to fix.

Internationally, Morsi hasn’t taken any dramatic routes.  Egypt’s partnership with the USA and ‘The West’ has continued, if perhaps in a more limited fashion.  He has made tentative moves to improve Egypt’s relationship with Iran and also seems committed to maintaining the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.  I would say his general policy is to keep as many potential allies abroad as possible, although he has appeared heavy-handed at times.  The most prominent example of this is his fierce opposition to Assad’s government in Syria, calling for direct support to the rebels fighting Assad and the imposition of a No-Fly Zone over the country.  He has also recently attacked Ethiopia’s planned project to dam the Nile, giving a veiled threat of war, though this is unlikely to happen.

Today, on the anniversary of his acquisition of power, mass protests have yet again broken out across the country.  As many as hundreds of thousands could be out, right now, protesting in Cairo, Alexandria and most other cities.  Many are calling for a ‘second revolution’, claiming they will not leave until Morsi resigns.  There are conflicting reports of how the army views the situation, with some claiming that the army, still recovering from its brief stint in power and keen to avoid more unrest, might play a more significant role than we have previously seen.

As I’m not Egyptian I don’t really have a right to comment, but I’m not entirely convinced Morsi should resign.  I oppose most of his policies I’m aware of, but there is the strong argument that he was democratically elected.  There’s also the strong argument that it would be a bad precedent of Egyptian presidents backing down from power at the first hint of trouble.  Also, quite simply, Morsi could have been a lot worse.  He does still permit protests and realises that he does rely on public consent to rule – a fact I don’t think he is ever allowed to forget.  He hasn’t yet set up a fundamentalist Islamic autocracy, as some feared this time last year.

It’s not unprecedented for popular protest to remove a democratically elected government from power, as we saw earlier this year with Bulgaria, and if the protests reach such an extent that the country becomes ungovernable then I do think Morsi will have to go.  There is the option open to him to hold a snap election and, in the presence of foreign observers, allow the will of the country to be properly tested.  I think that would be preferable to a direct resignation.  But I suspect, for now, he is here to stay.

*There are so many variations on how to spell his name – I’ve gone with the one I see most often.

2013: Qatari Emir Abdicates Throne

A bit late on this, but it’s a story which will fall under the radar despite being hugely significant so I thought I’d better mention it.  Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani* of Qatar has handed over power to his 33 year old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.  Knowing little about Qatar, most of my information is what I’ve read from other journalists – but I’ll try to summarise why this is such an important development.

Firstly, you need to examine the context this occurs in.  The region is recovering (well, with some exceptions) from the greatest political and social upheaval since achieving independence from European colonialism.  Since 2011 four Arab dictators have been forced from power – Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gadaffi and Yemen’s Saleh – in generally violent circumstances.  This is a region in which leaders tend to grip onto power for as long as possible, where virtually every leader leaves office either through their own natural death, a coup or an uprising.  The peaceful transfer or rotation of power is rare.  Which is one reason why this story is so surprising.

Why did he make such a decision?  I’m not sure anyone really knows, yet.  Is it an attempt to quell potential discontent by presenting a younger, more in touch leader – one who it will take time for the populace to become disillusioned with?  Does he feel he could achieve more behind the scenes?  Is he simply tired?  I have no idea.  Marc Lynch discussed the issue well in this article.  But what I think is more significant is the potential impact this could have, not just upon Qatar but the region as a whole.  Qatar has played an outspoken role in supporting uprisings in Libya and Syria – it currently reportedly supplies weapons to Islamists fighting the government in Syria.  Qatar has also played a role in helping Egypt with its continuing economic crises.  The Arab Spring can therefore be seen as having been an opportunity for the small country to become a big player in the region.  While most analysts think foreign policy will remain consistent for the short term, Sheikh Tamim could take Qatar’s influence in many different directions.

Another question is whether the perhaps inevitable political liberalisation might occur under this younger leadership.  Freedomhouse’s Freedom in The World 2013 report awarded Qatar a political rating of 6/7 and a social rating of 5/7, giving it the overall rating of 5.5 and grade of ‘not free’.  While a very bad rating, this does actually make Qatar one of the freer countries in the region; Iraq, Iran the United Arab Emirates and Yemen rate 6/7,  while Saudi Arabia and Syria rate the rock-bottom score of 7/7.  It’s not an impossibility that Qatar’s regime may decide upon a slow process of liberalisation.  Since 2006 there have been plans to hold the country’s first legislative elections and while this hasn’t yet happened – and while this body would have few real legislative powers – it would be a start.

Basically, I know nothing.  Except the fact that anything could happen.

*Still working on memorising that.

2013 Iranian Presidential Election Analysis

Well, one of the world’s most unpredictable and potentially meaningless elections has now produced an unpredictable and potentially meaningless result.  Hassan Rouhani is the new President of Iran (or will be upon inauguration in August), having won 50.71% of the vote and therefore avoided the need for a run-off election.  I won’t dignify the results with one of my Excel Tables, but there are points worth discussing.

Firstly, out of the 6 candidates vetted for election, Rouhani is certainly the most promising.   I don’t think he could be described as a reformist but he is a moderate on many issues.  While his attitude towards significant issues like domestic human rights and the Syrian conflict are not likely to be much different to what has come before, there might be a shift in Iran’s willingness to negotiate over its nuclear ambitions.  Rouhani has experience as a nuclear negotiator and does support seeking an end to Iran’s isolation.  He has received a Western education, having studied at Glasgow Calledonian University before the 1979 revolution, which will hopefully have given him a better understanding of Western culture and value, and perhaps have exposed him to Liberal ideas.  He has also been (respectfully) critical of the Iranian government in the past and apparently supported the 2009 protests.  What he does or does not believe may be irrelevant, but having a high-profile figure with moderate views in such a fundamentalist government certainly won’t hurt.

The main thing I noticed was how decisive an election this was.  While I believe Rouhani does genuinely have the support of the Iranian people, I can’t help wondering whether it was always Supreme Leader Khamenei’s intention to finish the election after one round.  I’m not sure whether his powers extend that far, but avoiding a second round would reduce the chances of a ‘spark’ occurring which could create more mass unrest.  Rouhani has a lead of over 30 percentage points – though this could be due to the vote being divided among the Conservative candidates.  The reason I question the extent of Khamenei’s power is that, of all the candidates, I don’t think Rouhani would be his preferred President.

Overall, this isn’t really an election which can be analysed.  As political theorist Ian Bremmer put it: “If the Iranian President actually had power, these elections would have been a game changer in the Middle East.”  Significant, but also not very significant at the same time.

Related articles:

2013 Iranian Presidential Election Predictions

The first round of Iran’s presidential election will be held on Friday.  Outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a controversial time in office, particularly after his re-election in 2009 which I shall discuss in a moment.  His presidency has raised some questions over the extent of Iran’s president’s power.  He has precided over a period of increasing isolation for Iran as pressure, largely in the form of sanctions, mounts over the country’s nuclear program – it is also now more unpopular than ever.  A regional cold war has developed between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the USA + its allies.  These tensions are now factoring in the Syrian Civil War, which has developed into something of a proxy war between competing interests.  Ahmadinejad is forbidden from serving more than two terms and so a new President shall be chosen.  Whoever this will be certainly has a lot on their plate.

In order to discuss the presidential election, it’s important to look at how Iran’s political system actually works.  The Western image of Iran is this bizarre, antiquated dictatorship and, while it often acts in this way, does have constitutional democratic elements.  Unlike Communist or dictatorial governments, which use elections to create the illusion of public legitimacy, I believe Iran’s system is designed to have a fairly elected president and parliament.  I haven’t studied Iran in detail, but that’s how it comes across.  The trouble is, as a theocracy, the ultimate authority in Iran is God.  Because consulting God poses a challenge, it is necessary to base laws on religious scriptures – the Quran, generally – and also the traditions of Shia Islam.  Interpreting these rules is the role of the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts.  As the name suggests, the Supreme Leader (currently Ali Khamenei) has supreme power over the judiciary, the armed forces, foreign policy, etc.  This leaves the role of the president unclear.  It’s incredibly complicated, but this BBC page helps make it a bit simpler.

In theory, the system should allow the population of Iran to democratically elect leaders to govern day-to-day issues that are not the concern of the Supreme Leader.  Yet, clearly, this is often not the case.  In 2009 Ahmadinejad was elected president in favour of the more reformist candidate Mousavi.  Many people believe Mousavi to have been the rightful winner and accuse the government of rigging the vote.  There were mass protests across Iran in response, and it did momentarily look as though the regime was in danger.  Yet, the government survived – mostly through using brute force to suppress the protests. It is clear that while there may be an element of democracy in Iran’s political system, it is in a manner tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader who will manipulate results if he does not believe them to be in the country’s interests.

I don’t believe the protests of 2009 will be repeated this year.  Another challenge to the regime would be nice, and the conditions of economic frustration which is common in most uprisings does certainly exist (though the anger quite successfully deflected towards the West, it would seem), I think careful planning will have gone into the election to ensure it produces the desired result.  The majority of accepted candidates are Conservatives, with the exception of the moderate Rouhani and reformist Aref, who dropped out yesterday to improve the chances of Rouhani.  Six candidates remain: five Conservatives and Rouhani.  Naturally, I am hoping Rouhani will win but I don’t think it would make much difference if he did.  If a candidate posed a serious threat to the status quo I don’t think they would not be allowed to stand after the events of 2009 – that Mousavi is currently under house arrest makes this clear.  Perhaps the results have already been decided.  It is impossible to say.

These are difficult times for Iran.  Anything could happen.  Even an unlikely reformist could be convinced that reform is necessary; look at Gorbachev in the Soviet Union or de Klerk in South Africa.  But, of course, the ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader, who currently seems determined for things to remain the way they are.

For an alternative look at Iran’s election, check out this unofficial candidate.

Economic Depression and Authoritarianism (Musing)

Just been musing, as one does, on the current trend in the world towards authoritarianism.  Of instability and the rise of the far-right in Europe, of defeats for freedom in Russia, Egypt, Syria, Mali, Iran, and increasing authoritarianism in countries like Venezuela, Ukraine, Turkey. I don’t know, perhaps reading this article* has just left me particularly gloomy, but there seems a tough fight ahead for democracy around the country.  I vaguely wrote about this earlier this year.  And I was wondering – this is just me musing – how much of a link there could be between economic depression and increasing authoritarianism in countries. I think there is an undeniable link between economic problems and a growth in right-wing movements, as cultural tensions increase and immigration becomes more unpopular.  But is there a link with the behaviour of the governments which are actually in power?

If we look at history, the best example would be the Great Depression in the early 1930s.  I’ve only studied Germany in great detail, but I know that the economic crisis Germany faced was a significant, if not the major reason the Nazis came into power.  They were able to exploit distrust in official establishments, offer a solution, offer hope.  Of course other factors were also important, and perhaps crucial, such as the aftermath of the First World War, Germany’s newness to democracy, etc.  However, I would presume that the growth of fascism elsewhere was also at least partly linked to the Great Depression.

If we assume that there is a link between economic depression and authoritarianism – or even just say that democracy struggles in these conditions – then we can at least agree that the impact now is less than in the 1930s.  I often remind myself of this if the world ever seems particularly hopeless – it was even worse back then, but we got through it.

Another significant reason there’s been an increase of authoritarianism that’s worth noting, in my view, is the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Dictatorships around the world have released how real and present a threat their own people pose to them and have consequently taken action to further oppress their people.  Davies’ J Curve suggest that the most stable states are either democratic or totalitarian, so these dictatorships have taken the route of further oppression to stay in power.  This does not mean that democracy is weakening but that it is growing strong enough to absolutely terrify the few remaining dictators.  Of course, the Arab Spring was arguably a result of economic stagnation across the Middle East and North Africa, so there could be another link with economic depression.

As I said, these are just musings – I’m sure there are probably quite a few flaws in my arguments.

*That article really makes you loath Putin, doesn’t it?