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Egyptian lawmakers intervene to allow expelled Christians to return home

By Correspondent / 02.17.12

Five of eight Christian families who were expelled from their village after sectarian strife in Egypt’s delta can now return, announced a parliamentary delegation that visited Sharbat yesterday to investigate.

That some of the families may return is a positive development, but the continued reliance on informal mediation instead of the rule of law to end the crisis is worrying, says Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The original decision to expel the families was also made by an ad hoc council, a traditional system of local justice that often leaves victims of sectarian conflict little recourse.

“I think we need to apply the law. It’s a shame that members of the People’s Assembly use this illegal method” to address the results of the initial mediation, he says. “They didn’t uphold the law and the state.”

On Jan. 27, following rumors of an affair between a Muslim man and Christian woman in Sharbat, villagers attacked and burned several Christian homes and shops. One Christian man fired a gun into the air during the confrontation, which Muslim residents said incited violence. Village leaders, at a series of unofficial reconciliation meetings overseen by police and governorate officials and some attended by members of parliament, decided that eight Christian families would leave the village.

All of the families were related to either the man who supposedly had the affair or the man who shot a gun. Those related to the shooter were the ones given permission to return.

The parliament members who visited yesterday represented a range of parties, both secular and Islamist. Members from Islamist parties were present at the initial “reconciliation councils.”

They announced that the families of those related to the man who shot the gun during the attack could return, and asserted that they were never forced to leave in the first place but chose to leave for their safety. The patriarch of the four families who may now return, Abu Suleiman, said this week that the committee told him he could leave the village or face continued attacks.

The statement by parliament members did not mention the remaining three families, and blamed media for exaggerating and worsening the situation. It also urged police to investigate the attacks on Christian homes and shops.

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Oprah Winfrey reacts at the Jaipur Literary Festival. (Manish Swarup/AP)

Can't get enough of books in India

By Rebecca ByerlyContributor / 02.17.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Thousands of people packed beneath an enormous tent at the Jaipur Literary Festival in Rajasthan, northwestern India, in January. They came to see talk show superstar Oprah Winfrey, one of the featured guests at the festival. Among her many accomplishments is her book club, which drove book sales into the millions. But, with no Oprah equivalent in India, the young people in this country are spearheading their own book clubs.

Sumeet Shetty is an example. When he’s not buying books, he’s inviting authors to speak at his company’s book club in Bangalore. With more than 500 active members, it’s one of the biggest on the subcontinent. Though that number is only a drop in the bucket in a country of 1.2 billion, it reflects a growing trend.
Literary festivals like Jaipur, one of the largest in South Asia, are exposing this generation to a variety of new authors. And, as the income of the middle class continues to rise, so does their appetite for buying books.

“My generation has so much more access to literature than my mother’s,” says Surabhi Bhatnagar, who started a book club at her university in Rajasthan. Though she plans to work in information technology, she says it is the writings of English author Virginia Woolf and works like “Into the Wild,” by Jon Krakauer, that captivate her.

Though right now in India books sell mostly by word of mouth, perhaps it’s only a matter of time until this growing enthusiasm for literature blossoms into a world-renowned book club like Oprah’s.

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In this February 2011 file photo provided by The New York Times, Times journalist Anthony Shadid, middle right, interviews residents of Embaba, a lower class Cairo neighborhood, during the Egyptian revolution. Shadid, the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, died Thursday of natural causes while on a reporting assignment in Syria. (Ed Ou/The New York Times/AP/File)

Anthony Shadid: Quite simply the best

By Correspondent / 02.17.12

Anthony Shadid, the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times who died Thursday of natural causes while on a reporting assignment in Syria, was, quite simply, the best.

The quality and depth of his reporting from across the region, particularly Iraq, was peerless, leaving the rest of us regional foreign correspondents stumbling in his wake in rueful admiration of his bravery, modesty, and innate talent. Perhaps part of that talent came from the fact that while he grew up in America, he was of Lebanese descent and thus had a cultural affinity with the region he was covering.

Although he began reporting from the region from 1995, first with the Associated Press in Cairo, then The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, it was in Iraq where he rightly achieved renown. Reading Anthony’s work, one sensed that he had an ability to shut himself off from the pressures of deadlines and the demands for instant analysis to take the time and thought to patiently locate, extract, and expose the soul of a story.

He did this with unforgettable and moving portraits of individual people attempting to cope with the rigors and fears of life in post-2003 Iraq. These elegantly written and nuanced reports, which became his trademark, offered a far more compelling and powerful insight into the realities of Iraq than the pedestrian daily accounts of the ebb and flow of the conflict.

His two Pulitzer Prizes for International Reporting, awarded in 2004 and 2010, were justly deserved.

A series of firsts

Anthony set a blistering pace in the competitive world of journalism. Even while he was busy racing between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to report on the startling developments of the Arab Spring, he still found time to scoop us all in his coverage of Syria. In May 2011, Anthony scored a fascinating and frank interview with Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s über-oligarch and cousin and confidante of President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Makhlouf’s boast that the regime would fight to the end in a struggle that could turn into a sectarian war and destabilize the Middle East revealed the arrogance of power and also left embarrassed Syrian officials scrambling to downplay the impact of his words. Anthony had won an unprecedented invite from Makhlouf to Syria in response to his profile of the influential regime insider published in The New York Times days earlier.

Not content to land the first interview with Makhlouf in the Western media, Anthony returned to Syria days later, this time without an invite. He became the first foreign reporter to clandestinely slip into Syria, boldly riding a motorcycle across a remote stretch of Syria’s border with Lebanon to reach Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, which was just then beginning to bear the brunt of the regime’s crackdown.

Calculated risks

Anthony was an extraordinarily brave journalist. In 2002, he was shot in the shoulder by an Israeli soldier while covering the Palestinian intifada in the West Bank. Last year, he was one of four New York Times reporters who were abducted for six days and threatened with death while covering the uprising in Libya – an incident in which their driver almost certainly died.

In an article for the Times, they expressed remorse. "If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for," they wrote.

Shadid was no gung-ho war junkie, however. Instead, he accepted that taking calculated risks were sometimes necessary to get to the truth of a story.

The first time I met him was at the beginning of the war between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. We were newly arrived in the southern port of Tyre where a growing band of journalists were mulling the risks of proceeding into the hill country south east of the town. The area had become a killing zone where all vehicles – even those bearing the supposedly protective motif “TV” taped to the roof – were perilously vulnerable to the Israeli jets and pilotless drones prowling the skies above.

While the rest of us were eyeing each other, wondering who would be first to make the move, Anthony quietly put on his flack jacket and climbed into his car. He told me he hoped to reach a village called Srifa which had been bombed a few days earlier, reportedly killing two dozen people. Anthony returned a couple of hours later, shaken. Bomb-cratered roads had thwarted his trip to Srifa and he had endured near misses from artillery and been harassed by angry and frightened villagers. But he had set the example for us to follow and in the days ahead we all began making perilous forays from the relative safety of Tyre.

Humility as well as courage

Yet for all his bravery, there was none of the swagger and bravado one sometimes finds in war correspondents. In fact, his courage was matched only by his genuine humility, friendliness, and quiet sense of humor.

Following the 2006 war, Anthony took time off to stay in Marjayoun, his ancestral town in south Lebanon. He was born and raised in Oklahoma City, which boasts a large expatriate Lebanese population, many of them originally from the Marjayoun area. He spent an idyllic few months fixing up his grandfather’s old home, exploring his Lebanese roots and writing his third book, “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East," which will be published next month.

Anthony died on Thursday in Syria, not from a bullet wound, explosion or at the hands of a gunman, but from an asthma attack, according to his colleague and friend, New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks. The attack came as the two of them walked toward the border with Turkey after several days of covert reporting inside Syria.

His death has left a gaping hole in Middle East reportage, but his legacy will remain in his exemplary newspaper articles and books and in the inspiration he fostered among younger generations of journalists.

Last June, Anthony gave the commencement speech at the American University of Beirut, where, in reference to his recent unnerving experience in Libya, he spoke with typical modesty and eloquence about the risks he took to convey the story.

“There is nothing exhilarating about escaping death. Its very prospect felt to me like a poison, spreading through your body. It lingers far longer than the bruises, and it lasts long after the memories fade of hands and legs bound by wire, in scenes so familiar to me over so many years in Baghdad and all the other cauterized cities in Iraq.”

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In this file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 186 miles south of capital Tehran, Iran. Major Asian importers of Iranian oil are thumbing their noses at American attempts to get them to rein in their purchases, dealing a blow to Washington's efforts to force the Middle Eastern country to curtail its nuclear program. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP/File)

Iran sanctions: Why India is in a tight spot

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / 02.16.12

As the world’s largest importer of Iranian crude oil, and as a close strategic ally of the United States, India is in a tight spot.

The US wants to put pressure on the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it may have toward developing nuclear weapons. For the Indian government and Indian companies, this presents a quandary. How to satisfy Western allies – and abide by US-led sanctions against companies that do business with Iran – while also securing the energy needs of its large, high-growth economy?

Iran says its nuclear program – which has made strides despite heavy international sanctions and a mysterious spate of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists – is purely for civilian energy use. Just this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran was now capable of building its own centrifuges for enriching uranium for nuclear fuel rods.

 “The arrogant powers cannot monopolize nuclear technology,” Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying on Iranian state television. “They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed.”

Nobody expects India’s neutrality – or its unwillingness to finger Iran in a series of recent bombing attacks against Israeli diplomats on Indian, Thai, and Georgian soil – to seriously disrupt the US-Indian relationship. That relationship was hard won over the past decade, after years of frigid ties during the cold war, and has now developed into one of Washington’s more reliable alliances in Asia. Both Washington and New Delhi share common goals on increasing trade ties, combating international terror groups, and in balancing the growing economic and military ambitions of China.

So in the present environment, India is keeping the conversation going with both the US and Iran. India reassures the US that it is firmly opposed to the emergence of Iran as a new nuclear weapons state. And last month, India became Iran’s biggest customer of crude oil, purchasing 2.2 million tons of it for its refineries.

India has serious energy needs: India is trying to get power to the nearly 300 million Indians who currently have no access to electricity; in the meantime, many of these people rely on kerosene for lighting. 

The US government seems to recognize that India cannot simply shut off the flow of Iranian oil, but White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Wednesday that the US expects its allies to keep the pressure up on Iran.

"I think that we have made clear to all of our allies and partners around the world about the importance of isolating the regime and Tehran and putting pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions," Mr. Carney was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying, "and that includes, obviously, India as well as many other nations."

Congress has also expressed concern. Reps. Steve Israel and Richard Hanna sent a letter to India's ambassador to the US urging India to rethink its plans to send a trade delegation to Iran, writing that "now is not the time" to expand business ties.

US and European Union sanctions against Iran have already driven up the price of oil, a fact that will be felt at fuel pumps around the world. On Wednesday afternoon, the price of a barrel of Brent crude was selling for $118, the highest price since August 1.

US sanctions against the use of US dollars to pay for Iranian oil have put India in a tough spot. In October, India imported nearly no Iranian oil, because it could come up with no mechanism to pay for it. Last month, Iran agreed to accept partial payment for oil deliveries in Indian rupees, and the oil started flowing again.

Meanwhile, Indian investigators continue to gather clues to the attempted assassination of an Israeli diplomat on Feb. 13 in New Delhi. According to press reports from India, a motorcyclist rode up alongside the car of Israeli embassy staffer Tal Yehoshua-Koren and attached a magnetic “sticky bomb” to the vehicle. The blast left Ms. Yehoshua-Koren injured. Indian and Israeli bomb experts are apparently coordinating a joint investigation.

 “We have no information or evidence of any country, organization, entity and individual being involved,” said Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in answer to questions of Iran’s possible involvement in the blast.

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Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio station speaks to The Associated Press Television in his office in Moscow, Tuesday, Feb. 14. Ekho Moskvi, was forced to change its board of directors after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Venediktov of 'slinging mud at me from dawn to dusk.' (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Russia's islands of media freedom are under attack

By Correspondent / 02.15.12

One of Russia's few independent radio stations, Ekho Moskvi, was forced to change its board of directors after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused its controversial news editor, Alexei Venediktov, of "slinging mud at me from dawn to dusk." 

A new and very highly-rated talk show on the Russian MTV youth channel was abruptly pulled off the air after its celebrity host, socialite Ksenia Sobchak, invited anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny to participate on the program this Friday. 

The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned in an interview that the Kremlin ordered the management changes at Ekho Moskvi and worries that the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, of which he is part owner, could be next. 

Are these events – all of which have occurred in the past day – just routine media upsets? Or do they herald a coming crackdown on the few little islands of relative free speech that have flourished during the Putin-era amid a sea of huge media outlets dominated by the state and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs? 

"The political situation is developing badly for Putin," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow-based media consultancy.  Putin is running for a third presidential term.

"Putin is not getting the political traction he needs, and he can't just walk away from power, because he might find himself in court the next day," Mr. Oreshkin says. Putin sits at the center of a system of power that feels threatened right now, "and that's why our 'collective Putin' is turning to authoritarian methods."

Putin: 'You sling mud at mud at me from dawn to dusk'

On Tuesday the state-run Gazprom-Media corporation, which owns 66 percent of Ekho Moskvi, ordered a surprise boardroom shakeup which led to the sacking of editor-in-chief Mr. Venediktov and two other liberal board members. Though removed from the management side, Venediktov remains in charge of the station's newsroom. However, he later told his radio audience that the removal of himself and his allies from the board will "make it easier to fire the editor" in the near future. 

In a statement posted on Ekho Moskvi's website, Venediktov said that the station's journalists, who own 34 percent of the station's shares, are "bewildered" by the sudden changes, and added that the sackings were probably political payback. 

"We understand that Gazprom-Media could not fail to respond to the criticism of high officials of the Russian Federation on our radio station," he said. In a tough on-air exchange between Putin and Venediktov last month, the Russian prime minister accused Ekho Moskvi of "serving the foreign policy interests of one state (against) Russia." 

When Venediktov became indignant at that suggestion, Putin shot back, "You’re offended, I feel. As for me, I’m not offended when you sling mud at me from dawn to dusk. Here I’ve just said two words and you got offended." 

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, insisted that "Putin has no complaints with objective criticism," according to the independent Interfax agency. But, he said, Putin does become upset when criticism is "unconstructive, biased and prejudiced … We note with regret that such criticism has become increasingly dominant on Ekho Moskvi." 

Too hot to handle?

The removal of Ms. Sobchak's talk show, entitled Gosdep (State Department), could be another case of Kremlin interference or it might just be that her controversial political format was too hot for the international music TV network MTV to handle. 

One show last week featured several top opposition leaders who've been banned from major Russian TV channels, including Boris Nemtsov and frequently imprisoned left-wing street leader Sergei Udaltsov in a freewheeling political discussion. 

Sobchak says the last straw for the network came when she invited anti-corruption crusader and opposition leader Alexei Navalny to participate in a discussion about nationalism. 

"Despite the fact that our program was enjoying much higher ratings than most shows (on MTV) and it had caused great resonance, it has been removed from the air without explanation," Sobchak told Ekho Moskvi on Tuesday. "I know that our show was a great success, it was good journalism and interesting material. There's just no reason to shut down such a program." 

An uncertain future

Mr. Gorbachev, who has grown increasingly critical of Putin in recent months, said Wednesday that the turmoil at Ekho Moskvi is definitely happening on Kremlin orders. 

"I have no doubts about it," he said. "I am ashamed this is happening here. It's a democratic radio station, and we appreciate what it's doing." 

Gorbachev is part owner of Novaya Gazeta, the combative weekly newspaper that has seen five of its journalists murdered in recent years. 

"We do feel the pressure," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of Novaya Gazeta. "Ekho Moskvi is a critical channel for the truth in our society, and we worry about what will happen to it and about this atmosphere that's being whipped up around the elections. What will become of us all after the elections, well, no one can predict that right now."

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New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin (17) drives past Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Tuesday. Knicks fans spread to Taiwan thanks to Jeremy Lin. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/AP)

New York Knicks fans in Taiwan? Yes, thanks to Jeremy Lin. (+video)

By Correspondent / 02.15.12

At the unlikely hour of 8 a.m. on Wednesday, dozens pack a downtown Taipei bar to bellow cheers as the big screen broadcast a live New York Knicks basketball game.

They took the morning off to watch Knicks star Jeremy Lin, born in the United States to Taiwanese parents, further his rise to unusual celebrity status in the NBA after a tough career start in the league.

The player’s fame, dubbed “Linsanity” in the sports media, has spread quickly to Taiwan as he brings a rare splash of sporting limelight to the island of his roots. His rise, and the sudden affinity in Taiwan for the New York Knicks, is nothing short of sensational, putting him in a league with two other Taiwanese world sporting celebs: Major League Baseball pitcher Wang Chien-ming and No. 1 ranked LPGA golfer Yani Tseng.

“Why is he a hero? It’s because he made the impossible become possible,” says George Hou, mass media lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan.

Taiwan raises relatively few sports heroes as students on the newly industrialized island focus more on conventional careers. Taiwan’s political archrival China, with more economic clout and diplomatic support, also asks that world sports bodies limit Taiwan’s profile.

“Even though his parents moved to the United States, we take him as one of our own,” says Michal Lee, deputy secretary general of Taiwan’s Republic of China Basketball Association. “A lot of people here dream of getting into the NBA, but it’s not easy. You need to work at it. For Asians to be of such tall stature and get in, that’s all pretty rare. So now we’re happy to see that Jeremy Lin has done so well.”

High threshold aside, Mr. Lin’s performance is likely to add points to basketball’s popularity among Taiwanese. Baseball leads other sports in Taiwan, both in the field and on television, but one in four Taiwanese follows basketball, Lee says. That means more than 5 million fans.

Taiwan has a seven-team men’s professional league, while NBA games dominate sports channels in the baseball off-season. The NBA has held marketing events in Taipei to boost the fan base. Men, about two-thirds of those fans, can be found shooting hoops on any Taiwanese school campus with a court.

The 23-year-old, 6-ft. 3-in. point guard helped the Knicks to five straight victories this month. He has averaged more than 20 points per game since starting for the team this month, chalking up 38 in one against the Los Angeles Lakers.

It wasn’t easy to get there. The NBA’s first Taiwanese-American player had joined the team at Harvard University without a scholarship and missed the 2010 draft before signing with the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors kicked Lin down to a minor league team three times before he earned a foothold. He was barely hanging on with the Knicks as well until getting a key chance to play during an otherwise poor game on Feb. 3.

The sports bar crowd got what it was looking for on Wednesday. The center of attention won a close game for his team with a three-point play, putting the Knicks up 90-87 over the Toronto Raptors.

“I think Jeremy Lin is a really good point guard because he can make the team sure of having the basketball and he can pass the ball to some handler who has a great chance to get the point inside,” says Steve Wu, a high school senior who plays the sport for fun. “I think that whatever, ethnic Chinese or American, he’s a really a good NBA player.”

IN PICTURES: Linsanity! Knicks star Jeremy Lin

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Tents of 'Occupy Frankfurt' movement are pictured during snowfall next to the Euro currency sign sculpture in Frankfurt, Germany, last week. (Alex Domanski/Reuters)

In Frankfurt, Europe's banking capital, Occupy soldiers on

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / 02.14.12

The cold snap gripped much of Europe, freezing rivers, interrupting barges, and threatening heating sources. But it seemed to invigorate the anti-inequality activists in Germany’s financial capital of Frankfurt. The stalwart protesters there are one Europe’s main surviving – and thriving – Occupy Movement encampments.

Since October, hundreds of residents have been bivouacking in tents in a quaint park directly across from the European Central Bank. Last week, as temperatures plunged to this winter’s low of -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), a core group of 38 held their ground and slept in their tents – a survival challenge that was both physical and ideological. 

"It’s important that at least a few of us stay here to give others strength,’ says Jürgen Harter, the software engineer who is the encampment superintendent of sorts, repairing cables, providing water, putting up tents, fine-tuning the logistics of a 50-or-so-tent village. Mr. Harter says he is fighting for a society that is more humane and less ruled by the power of consumption and money. "And for that, it’s worth it to fight – and to freeze," he says.

While the spectacular rise of the worldwide Occupy movement has been followed by its withering away in much of the world, Occupy Frankfurt has established itself as a peaceful, accepted voice – a testimony, some say, to the tradition of tolerance and openness of this old city of commerce. 

When police broke up the Berlin camp last month, the Frankfurt camp gained visibility. This week people traveled to Frankfurt from Spain and the Netherlands to get some occupy know-how. Proudly, Harter talks of "occupy tourism."

Squeezed between the banks’ shimmering glass and steel towers and the city's opera house, theater, and posh designer stores, the occupiers are a reminder of a hidden side of this wealthy city. "This location is part of our identity," says Harter, who says he has camped there for the better part of the past four months despite living just a few subway stops from the encampment.

"Nobody is afraid of us. We’re not aggressive. We reject violence. We don’t want to verbally aggress anybody. The bankers who work here are also human beings," Harter says.

This fall, Frankfurt’s Occupy camp was a haven for discussions – on capitalism, education, and culture. But then critics started complaining that the group had no focus anymore, no real mission. Movement supporters argue that the movement’s raison d’être lies in the sheer power of its presence.  

For now, the main battle is to survive the cold. On the frigid day I visit the camp, white frost has wrapped the camp in an eerie quiet. A string of protest signs swing in the air, the only visible signs of life. "Euroland will soon be over," one sign reads. "You occupy the money, we occupy the world," another says. "Break the dictatorship of financial markets!’

Braving the wind, Harter inspects the campsite. A few weeks ago the ground was littered with cables. Harter put them all away for safety. The cold made the water pipes he installed freeze. He wants to insulate them. "It looks like we’re going to be here for the long haul," he says. "Maybe one, two years." 

Harter goes about slapping shoulders, sharing jokes. "Come on, the sun is shining!" he tells a grumpy-looking man. Gas isn’t working, somebody complains. "I promise," he reassures, "you’ll get gas. You know I have connections!" His voice radiates confidence and everyone is welcome. Every day local bakeries deliver leftover rolls to the camp’s mess, a wide, spacious tent equipped with a kitchen. Neighborhood residents come and cook. Because the water pipes have frozen, campers get water from the opera house, just across the street – 100 liters a day.

One of the biggest benefits is the human exchange, the protesters say – the things protesters and observers learn just by meeting and talking with each other. There are, for example, the investment banker Harter got to know, who confessed that in spite of the money and power he had, he felt lonely, and the prominent people who take the time to stop by after a nearby fundraiser. Often people tell Harter, "I couldn’t do it, but go on!"

The Frankfurt occupy-ers do not expect the world to change overnight. Even if the movement dies, as it already has in many cities, they see the mere fact that US President Obama mentioned economic unfairness in his State of the Union speech in January as a sign the movement has had an impact.

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China's Vice-President Xi Jinping (R) and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attend an evening banquet to commemorate the 40th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, January 16. (China Daily/REUTERS)

Good Reads: China's next leader comes to Washington, as US enters a funk

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / 02.13.12

This week, as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping pays a visit to Washington, there will doubtless be many calls for the Obama administration to talk tough with America’s largest trading partner. No more of that nonsense of undercutting US workers with your cheap labor, sir, and you had better start supporting some democratic reforms in the Middle East and back home or there’s going to be trouble. Big trouble.

There will also be calls for the US to cultivate Mr. Xi, who is likely to replace President Hu Jintao when Mr. Hu is ready to step down. Show him the superiority of the free market system, unfettered by regulations and government planning. Slip some of that American Soft Power ™ into his green tea in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan did it with Mikhail Gorbachev, and now Mr. Gorbachev is endorsing Louis Vuitton.

But what should the Obama administration do? Some say America’s persuasive power have passed their peak. The American economy is beginning to recover, but the longer term trends of job-loss, debt, and geopolitical exhaustion mean that any US president – Democrat or Republican – will have limited tools of bluster to define the terms of any future US-China relationship. Americans expect exceptionalism – remember Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation – and they expect their leaders to take up where the Roosevelts, Eisenhowers, and Reagans left off.

But a slew of well-argued pieces this week show that these expectations are maybe misplaced.

In Foreign Policy, Daniel Blumenthal – an expert on China at the American Enterprise Institute – says that it’s naïve to think that either tough talk or sweet talk are going to win over Xi and set China on a different path. The truth is that the China that Xi would eventually govern is much more pluralistic and complex than the China that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon negotiated with during the cold war, or as politically weak as the Soviet Union that Mr. Gorbachev so helpfully dismantled.

“…engagement among top leaders is not enough. China is far more pluralistic than it was when Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon made their secret deals with party leaders or when President George H.W. Bush secretly sent national security advisor Brent Scowcroft to toast the Chinese after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, China's entrepreneurs want a truly free market. The less privileged want protections from a rapacious state. Reformers want more of a voice. U.S. engagement must expand to all levels of Chinese society, both within the Communist Party's confines and outside them.”

One-on-one diplomacy has its place, but nothing beats having a real strategy on how to deal with China, and Blumenthal calls America’s current policy a “muddle.”

America itself is not the giant disciplined gunboat that some foreign policy hawks assume it is, either, writes Charles Kupchan in this month’s Foreign Affairs. All over the world, democracies have suffered the most through economic globalization and in the recent economic meltdown. Indeed, it may be authoritarian governments with state-run economies who have ridden out the economic panics of 2007 and onward, leaving democracies to face the anger of their voters.

"Voters in industrialized democracies are looking to their governments to respond to the decline in living standards and the growing inequality resulting from unprecedented global flows of goods, services, and capital. They also expect their representatives to deal with surging immigration, global warming, and other knock-on effects of a globalized world. But Western governments are not up to the task. Globalization is making less effective the policy levers at their disposal while also diminishing the West’s traditional sway over world affairs by fueling the 'rise of the rest.' The inability of democratic governments to address the needs of their broader publics has, in turn, only increased popular disaffection, further undermining the legitimacy and efficacy of representative institutions."

In excerpts in the Atlantic and in a book review in Friday’s New York Times, Charles Murray has resurrected his Bell Curve theory to explain the growing inequality of US society. The key to success, if I understand Mr. Murray’s theory correctly, is education, and the key to success in education is to inherit a great IQ from your parents. For the rest, the door is shut. Sorry about that.

Maybe I missed them, but I didn’t see any articles out there proposing solutions. Diagnosing a problem seems to be the easy half of this battle. But how about the solution?

Is the decline of America preordained? Is there anything that businesspeople, elected American officials, and even individual American voters can do to turn things around? Can the US build the kind of strategic partnership – based on common goals and ideals – that the US built with its onetime colonial master, Britain? If someone wrote a story about solutions, I’d certainly read it.

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Americans arrested, deported by Bahrain for supporting democracy protests

By Curt HopkinsGuest blogger / 02.12.12

Two Americans, Radhika Sainath and Huwaida Arraf, were arrested by Bahraini authorities for their role in current protests against that country’s regime. They were arrested Saturday in Manama while acting as part of a team of monitors of peaceful protests. 

According to the 14 February Media Network in Bahrain, they were deported Sunday morning. The Americans “were handcuffed behind their backs on flight from Bahrain to London.”

The women were volunteers with the Witness Bahrain program, which situates observers in trouble spots, including Shiite villages, in the hopes that western presence will inhibit violence by security forces. Last year, those forces killed dozens of protesters who gathered at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout.

Footage of Arraf's arrest:

The women were arrested downtown in Manama at one of the latest demonstrations in favor of increased democracy in the Gulf nation.

According to a member of the Bahraini human rights community, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, the arrest of journalists, and their analogues, is far from rare and rarely fatal.

“Journalists are often detained from time to time here,” she said, “but they won't dare touch them especially if they're US citizens. The U.S State Department is already involved in the case and I've no doubt they'll be released unharmed (like the others.) It'll be shocking if this story has a different ending, but I doubt that will happen.”

Sainath, a civil rights attorney in California, outlined the circumstances that lead to her presence in the Bahraini capital in a blog post on Witness Bahrain’s website.

A small group of us were on the initial Skype call with human rights activists from Bahrain. A doctor who I only knew by the name of A* explained how security forces would attack Shia villages with teargas and birdshot on a daily basis, break into houses at night and toss teargas canisters into tightly packed homes, arresting anyone suspected of involvement in the democracy movement.

Would we come and stay in these villages? Surely, the government would behave differently if Americans and Europeans were watching.

Bahrain is a major American ally in the Middle East and provided staging grounds for the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. The country is regional fleet headquarters for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the Naval Central Command, covering the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea.

Curt Hopkins is a production editor and international reporter for the technology blog site, ReadWriteWeb.com,

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Pakistan teammates celebrate during a cricket match between England and Pakistan at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Feb. 6. Afghanistan played its first major international cricket match Friday against rival Pakistan, some hoped the goodwill between the players on the field would translate into better relations off it. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

A cricket game to end all war? Afghanistan takes on Pakistan.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / 02.10.12

For the first time – ever – Afghanistan today played an international cricket match against an elite team. It was against top-ranked neighbor Pakistan, with whom it has a relationship that is sometimes fraught with uneasiness, sometimes full of professions of brotherhood. 

But the historic cricket match, which took place in the UAE, both illustrated the love/hate relationship and helped fans on both sides of the border to forget, at least for a while, the tensions that exist between their countries.

“Everyone here is watching the match on TV. It’s very exciting and we’re praying hard for Afghanistan,” Pardis Haidary, a military officer in Kabul told the Monitor over the phone. “Matches like this help build friendship,” he says.

For newcomers Afghanistan, it was their first chance to pick up the bat against a major international team, having previously only played against other low-ranked teams.

Cricket was brought to war-torn Afghanistan through refugees who picked up the game during their time in Pakistani camps, and is popular mainly in the Pashtun-majority areas in the south and east of the country.

Though Afghanistan is new to the game, its rise has been nothing short of a “wonderful story,” according to the International Cricket Council, which provides the Afghanistan Cricket Board with $700,000 a year to develop the sport.

Relations between the two countries have remained tense since the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in September last year. Mr. Rabbani, who was head of a government-appointed peace council, was killed in his home by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace envoy, in an attack that some Afghan officials have blamed on Pakistan’s main intelligence agency.

Both sides, meanwhile, accuse each other of allowing militant havens inside their respective borders to carry out raids in each other’s countries. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is set to host his Afghan and Iranian counterparts for a trilateral summit in Islamabad next week.

At the popular Kabul Restaurant in Islamabad, staff and customers remained glued to their television, rooting for Afghanistan to pull off an unlikely upset.  Though the Afghans eventually lost, Pakistan’s cricket captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, lauded them for the talent they displayed and their fighting spirit, which at times stretched former world-champions Pakistan. 

Some hoped the goodwill between the players on the field could translate into better relations off it. “I have been in Pakistan for 19 years, but I can’t get a Pakistani passport,” complains waiter Naqeebullah Kabir.  “Now we can’t get visas to visit home, either.”

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